Wellness Works: How Detroit’s youth nonprofit community used surprise funding to build better health
What do people need to be well? “That’s a hard question,” said Tracy Gallardo, a mental health specialist at Urban Neighborhood Initiatives. She leaned back and took a deep breath. “I think it varies for everyone,” she finally answered. “But from my experience, personally and just being around a lot of people, I feel that what people need to be well is emotional support, security, and safety—at home, in their community, or whatever environment they’re in.”
Among Detroit’s youth and nonprofit leaders, there’s consensus to that idea. To be well, they say, people have to feel well—not just in their physical bodies, but in their emotions and their minds. That people need resources for basic survival is a given; few would argue that food, clean water, and shelter are paramount. But what is wellness thereafter? Basic survival intact, how do you know when you see it?
Recognizing that the pandemic made it harder for local youth-serving organizations to prioritize deeper wellness once their constituents’ basic needs were met, The Skillman Foundation put aside its traditional grantmaking scope and process to expedite an influx of extra funds into local partners’ hands, supporting them to define, design, and deliver their own paths to wellness. On top of wellness grants that the Foundation made to enrich well-being for educators, across schools, and through youth-led programs in Detroit, several existing grant partners were given an additional $20,000 to use according to their own wellness needs, without limitation. In total, The Skillman Foundation directed more than $4 million to wellness initiatives since 2020.
“We had an opportunity to partner with [the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative] at the end of the first year of the pandemic, to just figure out ways we could support, through our grantmaking, the well-being of young people in Detroit and the well-being of the adults who work really closely with young people,” said Ashley Aidenbaum, program officer at the Foundation. Releasing funds to organizations quickly, and trusting them to identify their needs and the ideal ways to fulfill them, proved crucial to the impact of The Skillman Foundation’s wellness giving. “We’re really trying to double down on being flexible, responsive, and not burdensome—just helping our partners do the work they knew was needed,” added Ashlee Schmidt, another of the Foundation’s program officers.
What do people need to be well?
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Sound mental health is the foundation
Across communities in Detroit, especially in the context of life during COVID, there is agreement that wellness starts with sound mental health. “Mental health is truly the foundation of everything that we do,” said Kiesha Jackson, founder and executive director of Caleb’s Kids, a nonprofit committed to suicide prevention and building youth awareness and understanding around mental health.
“I think about all of the youth programs that are out there—tutoring programs, mentoring programs, sports programs—all of those programs are great,” said Jackson. “But if my mental health is not intact, I can’t go and get 100% on a test. If I’m struggling with insecure thoughts, or struggling with anxiety and worry; if I am dealing with intense anger and not able to process my emotions, I can’t be a star athlete. So mental health is the basis of everything we do, and [sound mental health] provides youth the building blocks they need to excel in school and accomplish their goals,” she said.
Knowing this, one of Caleb’s Kids, Khyiana Tate, jumped at the chance to aim wellness funds at programming that would directly affect the mental well-being of youth who are deaf and hard of hearing. As a deaf youth herself, Tate is familiar with the woeful lack of resources aimed at safeguarding the mental health of children and teens with disabilities.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death among children aged 10-14, and Black and Indigenous youth are at highest risk. Despite limited data on rates of suicide among people with disabilities, a 2021 CDC survey found that adults with disabilities are three times more likely to struggle with suicidal ideation.
Struck by the flexible nature of the additional Skillman Foundation gift, Tate proposed to Jackson that it be used to create permanent resources that prioritize the needs of disabled youth at Caleb’s Kids. She’s now the force multiplier on a three-person project team—led entirely by youth—that has developed a trifecta of mental wellness resources designed to support children and teens who are deaf and hard of hearing.
Rounding out the team with Tate are teens Jurmel Mitchell and Micah Scott. As a trio, they’ll build an American Sign Language (ASL) mental health reference book as their first project. It can be more challenging for deaf youth to articulate feelings of depression or anxiousness, Jackson said, because they may not yet know the ASL signs to describe distress in mental health terms. The book will open up new ways for youth to communicate their feelings clearly.
Next, the team will plan and host regular monthly kickbacks, where deaf youth can create art, participate in mobile bowling, or even smash a few plates in a rage space. The culmination of the project is a new sensory wellness suite, featuring lights that phase through every primary color, a massage chair that engages eight different pressure points, a sensory closet stacked with textured fabrics and pillows, and even a scent room with aromas like lavender to promote relaxation.
“Mental health comes in many forms,” said Tate. “Everyone always thinks mental health is a bad thing, but you can have good mental health by saying positive things about yourself daily, doing something fun, knowing when to say no, or knowing that it’s ok to scream and yell and have a bad day.”
After struggling with her mental health and seeing how much people in her family have struggled with theirs, not even really knowing how to cope, it’s hard to understate the importance of a space like this for she and her peers, Tate told Jackson. She’s elated to have a place—that she helped create—to heal.
Sparking a trend of mental health as a ‘normal’ topic in Southwest Detroit
Urban Neighborhood Initiatives, the 25-year-old nonprofit focused on human development from the classroom to the economic corridor in the Springwells neighborhood of Southwest Detroit, is destigmatizing mental health, one day at a time. They’re doing so largely under the leadership of Tracy Gallardo, UNI’s mental health specialist and navigator.
Besides covering the costs of training 20 members of UNI’s frontline line staff in the TRAILS Tier One curriculum to support youth social-emotional health, “the Skillman money helped us in that it provided Tracy’s salary, to be able to actually go through the developmental planning process to refine the way that we’re doing our mental health work,” Alicia McCormick, UNI’s director of special projects, said. “It also covered Tracy’s certification in different modalities,” McCormick added, “so that we started the new year able to provide services like cognitive behavioral therapy, grief and loss therapy, and more support like that.”
Gallardo is a staple at the institution; she first engaged with UNI as a youth participant herself, 15 years ago. Now, alongside McCormick, she’s guiding extra wellness funds into the construction of a mental health framework that will be sustainable for years to come. The opportunity to expand mental health programming at UNI is personal for Gallardo, who credits her early encounters with Christine Bell, another UNI social worker, with sparking her interest in pursuing a career in mental health.
“When I was a young person, I didn’t realize I had generalized anxiety disorder because mental health wasn’t something we spoke about at home or in my group of friends. We just brushed it off,” Gallardo said. “But having that emotional support from Christine showed me the importance of having someone—a mental health ally—and that there was a huge need for mental health awareness in my community—not just in Springwells, but Southwest Detroit in general.”
The underpinning of UNI’s growing mental health infrastructure is an operations manual intended to guide all of UNI’s work. Youth-led mental health programs inside the nonprofit and throughout the surrounding neighborhood are a staple of its efforts. High school senior Magdalena Alcaraz is taking an active role in the charge.
“As a mental health advocate, our responsibilities are to educate the community on what mental health is, and then fight to normalize it and reduce stigma around it,” she said. For most of the past year, Alcaraz and the other four youth advocates in her cohort have diligently planned a curriculum to train future mental health advocates, aged 14-24, who will undergo training in socio-emotional wellness, peer support, and community workshop facilitation.
The workshops they’ll run are community-facing, serving to educate Springwells residents about the importance of maintaining good mental health and how to secure the resources they need should their mental health suffer. One of those resources is up to 12 weeks of free therapy at UNI. The first set of youth advocates Alcaraz will help train is set to arrive in early October.
“We recruit people from the Springwells neighborhood to come to the workshops that we facilitate about why it’s good to be vulnerable,” Alcaraz said. As the information on mental health is backed by anecdotal and peer-reviewed scientific research, she added that she really enjoys seeing the impact of the team’s effort in real time. “Most recently, we taught sixth and seventh graders about social-emotional learning and one of the examples that I gave out to the kids was, ‘you’re not an island and if you hold too many things inside of yourself, eventually you’ll explode. The kids were all really responding and affirming, nodding and saying things like ‘yeah and whoa.’”
The appreciation that UNI’s children and teens have developed for mental wellness is spreading. Parents who previously brushed aside any talk of mental health, like Alcaraz’s mom, are changing. These days, not only can she talk to her mom about her mental health, but she doesn’t even have to get up the nerve to say something.
“She used to always be like, ‘All that stuff in your head is ideas you get from the internet, you know?’” Alcaraz said. “But she came to a few of our meetings and I think it was a bit eye-opening for her too, because she’s started doing affirmations every day, and now she’s always checking on me and my siblings. For me, it’s like whoa—two years ago, she wouldn’t have even noticed anything.”
Food and physical fitness as pathways to strong and confident mindsets
At Detroit Food Academy (DFA), the roadway to physical wellness and mental fortitude begins in the kitchen. “We use culinary skills as the driver,” said Le’Genevieve Squires, classroom facilitator and small batch business manager at DFA. “But we’re also developing students’ socio-emotional skills by helping them understand how food relates to everything that we do.”
Facilitators at DFA teach students how to cook, and they toss in lessons about food justice and the power of youth voice, too. “They’re at a critical stage where they’re learning what the outside world means. We want them to understand that their questions, opinions, and actions matter now, that they can have an impact now, and they don’t have to be adults to make change.”
Last school year, said Squires, one DFA high schooler used her voice on national news to advocate for student mental health after two years of virtual classes. That news appearance kicked off discussions among students at DFA that helped inform the ongoing commitment of staff to students’ wellness beyond the kitchen.
“The wellness activities have helped me change my mindset,” said DFA student Skye Morris. Besides being immersed in an environment in which she and others feel comfortable telling the truth about their feelings, Morris said she’s in a better mental state because of the physical fitness programming DFA provided to students through Coach Jacob at Detroit Body Garage. Morris hailed the workouts as “necessary and making a difference,” despite each one being virtual.
“I wasn’t working out before the Zooms with Jake,” she said. “I just felt like it wasn’t something I wanted to be doing; my mindset was holding me back. But being where I am now, I would say I’m mentally relaxed and in a better state; my attitude has changed. Plus, my body feels better.” Morris said she makes it a point to exercise regularly now, even without Jake and DFA, because it’s key to what she needs to be well.
“Wellness starts with access,” Squires said, her passion absolute. DFA’s nurturing begins with food, but it doesn’t stop there because food isn’t solely connected to physical wellness. As much as a community food system might reveal its residents propensity for high blood pressure or prospects for a longer life, it might also show which neighborhoods have greater financial wealth, more desirable educational opportunities, or even which aren’t relegated unto themselves.
“We have to understand that ‘wellness’ is not just physical. It’s an accumulation of your spiritual and mental,” said Squires. “I feel like having tools to know what those aspects are, and having the resources to access those different ingredients of being well, puts us all on a better path to overall wellness.”
Unlocking access and freedom to wellness
Ultimate wellness is linked to freedom of choice and access. “Choice is really important because only the individual knows what is going to help them to be well; [wellness] is customized to what’s happening in your own life,” said Shawntai Brown, school programs manager at InsideOut Literary Arts Project. “But then to go the extra step, once you know what you need, to be able to access it—whether it’s through time, funding, resources, connection—that is the other missing piece.”
With a small, tightly knit staff, InsideOut has helped tens of thousands Detroit students grow academically and find their voice—for almost three decades now. Their primary energy put forth into students, both before the pandemic and throughout, they directed additional Skillman funds to rebuild connection amongst one another and to empower themselves by removing financial barriers to wellness. In addition to hosting in-person wellness activities that reunited the staff after nearly two years of working virtually, InsideOut issued mini-grants to its staff and writers and allowed them to apply the money however they saw fit, according to their individual wellness needs.
“We felt very confident about our decision to focus on staff because we know how much we focus on the students; we are so mission driven here, doing everything that we can for our youth,” said program director Michele Bolofer. “But it comes down to that analogy around putting your mask on first, before you can help somebody else. [In the pandemic], we realized we’d been doing all the work without our masks, and we were seeing that impact in all of our writers.”
Suzanne Honda used the mini-grant she received to buy groceries. It supported a few other things, too. But food was at the top of the list. Honda, who is a lead teaching artist fellow this year, was a writer-in-residence during the pandemic, and explained that as contract workers for InsideOut, writers-in-residence only begin getting paid once in-school work starts. That leaves many with weeks, sometimes months, of no pay. And the pandemic made an already precarious circumstance more tenuous than usual. Honda said she was grateful for the discretion to use the grant according to her needs because it enabled her to cover basic necessities and some things her heart needed, too.
“I squirreled away a little bit for submission fees to send off poems, and I bought a full-priced book—in hardcover,” she said. The book was her friend’s first-ever novel, and the grant allowed Honda to preorder it from a local independent bookstore.
“I’m a writer, you know? And being able to do that validates the work that we’re all doing in this community,” Honda said. “To read a new book is even more exciting when you know the person who’s been working behind the scenes on it and you’re able to know the bookstore that you’re buying it from and the people who work there… you feel less alone.”
To her delight, the book arrived right when she was feeling disconnected, with all of her InsideOut teaching and interactions online. Getting the book, she said, “was a treat, like this little beacon of hope that we’re getting through this pandemic and we’re gonna come to the end of it at some point.”