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Enabling Communities

Announcing our Wellness Works Initiative

The Skillman Foundation was founded with the mission to help children thrive and excel into adulthood. The work of supporting this mission means we must constantly seek to understand the factors that stand in the way to young people’s happiness and prosperity. So when the pandemic broke, we reached out to young people, youth program providers, and educators to understand the greatest emerging needs and worries.  

We rushed assistance to nonprofits who were filling gaps for children and families, making more than $1.7 million in emergency grants, and revised our grantmaking strategies to align to the new context brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. But one key theme had emerged in our conversations with Detroit youth and their champions—personal wellness was in a fragile state. Our kids, and the adults who serve them, have undergone a good deal of hardship and stress as result of the pandemic and long to feel whole, stable, and well. 

To respond, The Skillman Foundation is launching a Wellness Works Initiative. Over the next year, we will grant $3 million toward wellness programs and activities in a variety of ways. Below, we outlined the funding areas we’re focusing on and share some of the sentiments we’ve heard that have moved us.  

“Being diagnosed with mental health challenges, grieving, racial tensions and biases that are occurring in their life and in my own life—it’s just a lot… and our young people depend on us to be there.”

Detroit youth program provider  

Our Wellness Works Initiative is partially supported by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative DAF, an advised fund of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative selected The Skillman Foundation as one of five city-based partners to support wellness work, providing $1.5M of the $3M we intend to fund.  

Our Wellness Works Initiative will be focused on the following. 

Helping those who work directly with youth to offer wellness programming 

The stresses of the health pandemic, virtual schooling, disconnection from social relationships and spaces, and household hardships are playing a heavy toll on the psyches of children and youth.  

Last summer, as the pandemic was unfolding and hitting the Detroit community harder than almost any other American city, we held focus groups and surveyed youth to check in on their mental and emotional wellbeing. They shared, not surprisingly, that their worries and stressors were compounded by the lack of contact with the outside world. Kids expressed an openness and desire to talk through their feelings and struggles and be supported to have a more positive outlook on life. Some kids expressed difficulty in talking with parents about this, as they were also struggling.  

“So there’s a lot of things that happened that affected my mental health and I wasn’t able to talk about it because if I were to talk about it, the adult will feel blamed.”

—A Detroit Youth

This statement also points to major factor in ensuring young people’s mental and social-emotional well-being are cared for: adults are hurting too. They also need support to develop their own practice of self-care:  

  • “I knew that it was a problem when I was asked ‘what do you do for self-care?’ and I couldn’t think of one thing.” —Detroit youth program provider 
  • “Trying to balance being pulled by community needs and being present for my family and my friends is challenging.” —Detroit youth program provider 
  • “It amazes me when some are surprised that enrollment in teacher education programs has plummeted and that we are experiencing a real and dire teacher shortage… Teachers genuinely care about their students and continue to do more with less… I’d like to see a country that is committed to uplifting and supporting the next generation of educators and leaders.”—Brittany Perrault, president of Michigan Education Association’s Aspiring Educators of Michigan program 

To help youth program providers add or expand wellness supports or activities into their programming for youth and/or staff, we reached out to our more than two dozen current grant partners who work directly with kids to offer up to $20,000 in grant funding to this end, for a total of approximately $500,000. These grants will be awarded in June 2021. 

To help school leaders enact in-school initiatives that support educators and/or students, we will provide mini-grants in the fall of 2021. We know that schools and teachers are working hard to hit the ground running next school year. These grants are meant to help prioritize self-care, general well-being, and connections between educators and students. Wellness is a critical pre-condition to learning, more important now than ever before. 

To support youth-designed and -led activities that foster wellness, we intend to launch a mini grant program in the spring of 2022.  

Supporting school principals to remain a rock for their school communities  

“Principals are fueled by service to our school community, but sometimes our tank needs a refill to keep powering forward,” 

—Detroit principals Tanisha Manning and Walter Reese in Chalkbeat article about principal wellness 

In partnership with the Black Male Educators Alliance of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University, The Skillman Foundation will launch a principal wellness professional learning community in late summer of 2021 that will engage 20 Black Detroit school leaders in a year-long fellowship. This idea was inspired by extensive outreach over the past 18 months during which our conversations with principals revealed a high level of exhaustion and burnout as they set their personal wellness aside to focus on the intensified needs of their schools, staffs, families, and students.  

“Being in education if you’re single is dangerous because it’s easy to lose yourself in the profession and just make that your world.”  

Nicholas Brown, Principal at the Academy of Americas, from our session on Self-Care for Adults Who Serve Kids 

We’re teaming up with local experts Dr. Curtis Lewis of the Black Male Educators Alliance of Michigan and Dr. Rema Vassar of Eastern Michigan University, who will co-develop and facilitate the principal wellness professional learning community to include a series of learning sessions and individualized coaching supports centered on personal wellness, belonging, and connection. It will be designed to provide differentiated supports within a safe and supportive community and to promote well-being and leadership. The learning community will offer an opportunity for principals to find solutions to problems rooted in racism and discover ways to practice self-care while enacting change for equity and access in their schools.  

The 2021 principal wellness fellowships will be offered by invitation from The Skillman Foundation. Awardees will be announced on our website in late summer.  

Funding broad efforts to improve well-being

By fall of 2021, we expect to announce a collection of grant awards totaling approximately $1 million to fund efforts and organizations that work across the city and its schools to support personal well-being.  

“No learning can take place without a focus on relationships and the well-being of kids, families, and the adults who serve them.”—Punita Thurman, The Skillman Foundation  

We won’t relent on the high ambitions we have for young people—that they will excel in school, explore and develop their talents and their leadership skills, and graduate from high school ready to take on college and a prosperous career trajectory. But in order to excel, they must be well.   

Future updates on Wellness Works will be posted on skillman.org as grants are awarded. 

The Skillman Foundation

A voice for children since 1960, The Skillman Foundation is a private philanthropy that serves as a fierce champion of Detroit children. The Foundation works to ensure Detroit youth achieve their highest aspirations by strengthening K-12 public education, afterschool learning opportunities, and college and career pathways.

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