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Project AWARE at work in Tribe’s schools

In 2019 the Seminole Tribe competed for a five-year, $8 million federal grant to identify mental health issues in children at an early age.

The grant was competitive and open to all applicants, not just Native Americans. Led by Health and Human Services Director Dr. Paul Isaacs, the Tribe went up against numerous large state education departments and won the grant. Other winners of the grant included the education departments of California, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

“We figured it out first,” Isaacs said. “It is another Seminole first.”

An Ahfachkee second-grader reviews a worksheet on which she identified the emotion shown in the pictures during a Project AWARE activity on empathy Feb. 11. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

The AWARE (Advancing Wellness And Resiliency Through Education) grant was awarded in April, but it took a few months of planning to get the program fully developed.

Project AWARE began in August and serves 445 students from preschool through high school at the Ahfachkee School in Big Cypress, Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School in Brighton and the Tribe’s four preschools.

Project AWARE is focused on prevention and early detection of mental health issues. Students learn resiliency as well as social and emotional skills through weekly activities such as arts and crafts, worksheets, videos, discussions and stories.

“It is always easier to handle issues earlier than later,” said Dr. Brittany Henry, AWARE program manager. “We hope to help kids so they won’t need more services. All of our activities are prevention based.”

With the consent of parents, the students meet in age groups with AWARE counselors and staff weekly. The students don’t miss any core subject classroom time; instead they are pulled out of an elective for the 20-to-30-minute activities.

Each month has a theme and February’s was empathy. At PECS, the activities were all about acts of kindness for Valentine’s Day.

“We want them to know what it means to walk in someone else’s shoes and how to show empathy through behavior,” said AWARE mental wellness counselor Jessica Lea.

During the activity Feb. 10, a group of PECS third-graders described acts of kindness. Some answers included doing laundry, babysitting, buying a toy for a friend and helping mom.

The second part of the activity was to create cards to make their teacher and aide happy. They wrote those sentiments on the cards.

A ball with questions about empathy was used as a tool during a lesson on the emotion during a Project AWARE activity. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

“Think about what you are thankful for and what will make them feel good,” instructed Lea. “It should be straight from the heart.”

Some of the messages were “you make me smile all day,” “you are the most loving teacher I ever had” and “I am thankful for you teaching us all this stuff.”

The theme remains the same for every grade level but the activities are age appropriate. A group of PECS fifth-graders were challenged more than the younger kids.

“We want them to talk with their peers about the theme,” Lea said. “It is more discussion based. Each group is at a different level.”

The students watched a video of strangers helping strangers in a pay it forward stream of acts of kindness and engaged in a vigorous discussion about it afterward.

“The really great acts of kindness are those that are never expected,” Lea said.

Then they wrote cards with compliments for their teacher and aide. As they left, they were given bags of candy with individualized complimentary messages from their teacher.

“The teachers were excited about it because it isn’t always they can do that during the course of a busy day,” said Dr. Giselle Bayard, AWARE community project manager. “The messages are personal and shows the teachers really know the kids. They are creating that positive school climate, which adds to what PECS is already doing.”

At Ahfachkee on Feb. 11, groups from the first and second grades tackled the theme of empathy quite differently. They used worksheets with pictures of facial emotions and had to identify the pictured emotion. Cartoon drawings with exaggerated expressions helped them.

AWARE mental wellness technician Franchesca Meyers and AWARE mental wellness counselor Jessica Lea lead a lesson on empathy with an acts of kindness activity Feb. 10 for a group of Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School third-graders. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

“Sometimes kids struggle to figure out what other kids are feeling,” said Crystal-Ann England, AWARE mental wellness counselor. “This helps them identify other people’s emotions.”

The second-graders talked about showing emotions on their faces and talked about the images they identified. One could be a sleepy face, but the thermometer in the mouth told a different story: sick, not tired.

Then they played a game with a ball covered with questions. The kids threw it to each other and the receiver had to answer the question closest to their thumb. One question was “why would someone feel worried?”

The answer given by one second-grader was “we had to stay where the ducks were so we wouldn’t be by an alligator. It didn’t work, the alligator got my dog.”

Another question, “what is empathy,” was given this answer: “When you help people who are going through something, like their mom and dad are fighting.”

Next up was a group of first-graders. The worksheets were similar and age appropriate. Instead of multiple choice, the students had to connect the face to the emotion with a pencil.

“This activity has the same goal: to identify feelings,” England said.

More teaching occurred with the younger kids. During the ball activity, England and AWARE mental wellness technician Ashley Maurice explained patiently.

“Empathy is when you are able to understand someone else’s feelings even though you aren’t going through what your friend is,” Maurice said. “By being concerned and asking if they are OK, you are showing empathy.”

Another toss of the ball, introduced another question and answer. “Why is it important to show empathy?” A very wise first-grader said “You have to treat other people the way you want to be treated.”

Halfway through the school year, Isaac and Henry took stock. The program has received a lot of positive feedback from school administrators, teachers and parents.

Parents have reached out more often to teachers than to program counselors, which is fine with Henry.

“It is going well,” Henry said. “We met over half of our anticipated numbers for interaction with students in less than half a school year. We are going to continue to develop partnerships with the community to do some summer programs. We really value input from the community. Feedback helps us grow and develop the program into what it needs to be.”