By Kate Jolley
Originally published in The Florida Times-Union
Jessica Stephens and Dayna Cohen had a lot in common – both graduating from University of North Florida’s School of Nursing, both diligent, enthusiastic individuals. But it wasn’t until they found out about United Way of Northeast Florida’s Upstream initiative that their shared passion was realized.
Both young women struggled with the stigma of mental illness and saw it affect themselves and their family members. When they learned about United Way’s Upstream competition – a initiative that challenges college students to propose an idea for social change in areas such as education, financial stability and health – they knew they had to get involved.
“A lot of mental health stigma is being built at the adolescent age when kids are in high school,” said Cohen. “We wanted to build a strong foundation for these children to prevent that stigma from growing as they got older.”
From this seed grew Mindful Friends, an after-school program for Ribault Middle School sixth graders focused on alleviating the stigma from a young age.
The program will take place once a month and pairs a Ribault High School student with a UNF student to lead a group of sixth graders in conversations about mental illness, creating a safe place to educate kids on the signs and symptoms.
Before the program’s kickoff, the young women have enlisted the help of the National Alliance of Mental Illness to host a one-day session with the student volunteers.
“We want to let the volunteers know that it’s not their job to intervene if a child comes up to them in confidence,” said Cohen. “NAMI will show them how to respond to students in a mindful way.”
A mental-health counselor will always be on site, and volunteers will be instructed to send students to the professional should an issue be uncovered.
It took a lot of planning and encouragement to get the idea for their program to where it is today, and much of that came from Sarah Ley, their United Way Stein Fellow coach.
“A big thing about the Upstream challenge is that they wanted the ideas to be sustainable,” said Stephens. “That is something that Sarah helped us with. She was able to keep us grounded and keep everything in perspective.”
After completing a mock presentation with their coach, the two presented their idea to a panel of business and community leaders who judged the competition. Mindful Friends was selected as a $5,000 grant winner in a tie for first place.
“Dayna and Jessica showed incredible creativity with their Upstream idea,” said Sydney Solan, the individual and student engagement coordinator at United Way. “They went above and beyond in every part of the process, from the written proposal to the skit they performed at the pitch. Everyone was in agreement when they won.”
The program will piggyback off of the TEAM UP afterschool program and is set to start in October with information sessions for parents to give them a better understanding of what the program is trying to achieve. Then, coming Spring 2017, the program will focus on a different mental-health topic each month.
Though Mindful Friends is a big part of Stephens’ and Cohen’s lives right now, it isn’t the only thing. Both women graduated from UNF in August and will soon begin their own nursing careers, Stephens at Wolfson Children’s Hospital and Cohen at Duke University Hospital.
“It’s going to be a transition, but we definitely have a huge support system from a lot of our partners,” said Stephens.
Even as they start their careers, they plan to be as present as possible as their program kicks off and agree it was a humbling experience to see how much of an impact they could make on the Northeast Florida community.
As Stephens and Cohen move into the next phase of their lives, they intend to continue to live by the motto of their program: “Helping others through open minds.”
For more information on United Way of Northeast Florida’s Upstream initiative – or to become an Upstream investor for future winning ideas – visit unitedwaynefl.org/upstream.
United Way’s 2016 class of Upstream finalists were recently announced at JaxCoE’s Innovation Conference Saturday, Oct. 15. To stay up-to-date on their progress, follow United Way of Northeast Florida on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at @unitedwaynefl.org.