The Mind-Body Ambassadors: An After School Club For Anxiety And Stress Relief At Stoneman Douglas
Small group meetings for the Mind-Body Ambassadors always start with guided breathing. Students call it a "soft-belly" breath.
Ten students at a time sit in a circle in an upstairs teacher's lounge at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School - and they take slow, deep breaths from their diaphragms.
"That just helps you clear your mind, and it really helps," said Arthy Suresh, who just finished her sophomore year.
Suresh, 16, participated in one of the first small groups for learning stress-relieving techniques after school. She will be the president of an official club that starts next school year for students who want to learn about ways to try and reduce anxiety.
So far, Mind-Body Ambassadors have been learning about exercises like mindful eating, expressive drawing and shaking and dancing.
"We do a lot of guided imagery - there's another one that's 'safe place.' I thought of a cabin in the mountains," Suresh said.
The meetings themselves are supposed to be a safe place for students too. They've been meeting, unofficially, in rotating groups every Wednesday. The teachers' lounge they use is painted to look like a beach.
"So it's super calm, and there's couches and everybody gets comfortable," Suresh said.
Suresh was not a student at Stoneman Douglas when the shooting happened last year. Her family came to Parkland last summer from North Carolina.They had decided to move before the shooting.
Moving to a new state and starting a new school is hard anyway. Being a new kid at Stoneman Douglas High School brings a specific kind of anxiety for an outsider to step into. Suresh said, she had been really nervous to start 10th grade at a school where everyone is trying to deal with a traumatic event.
"Coming here it's definitely, a very sensitive topic so I didn't want to, like, bring it up," she said.
"I didn't really want to, like, talk about it at all" - Arthy Suresh
"I just didn't know what to do," she said. "But after I went to the sessions and it really just helped me relieve just general stress, I was like, 'this is actually, like a good way to help my friends. And this is something that I can do by myself that's gonna help them.'"
Suresh's AP World History Teacher, Diane Wolk-Rogers, shared that feeling of helplessness at first. She's been teaching at Stoneman Douglas for 19 years.
"When it first happened I could not find a calm in myself," Wolk-Rogers said about the shooting. "I couldn't even imagine coming back and teaching again."
All that changed when Wolk-Rogers went to a training organized by the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Parkland last year. The center, based in Washington D.C., has been sending trainers down to Broward County since the shooting to give workshops on strategies for relieving anxiety - including the soft belly breathing.
Once Wolk-Rogers discovered she liked the center's educational model, and she found herself healing from the trauma of the shooting, she knew she had to bring it back to her students in some form.
"How can I help them move forward, that's all that I think about," she said. "That's all that I want to do."
"If I couldn't calm help myself, how am I going to help these kids?"- Diane Wolk-Rogers
She started by inviting students to come and try different ways to relieve anxiety at the beginning of the school year. She's been leading the groups every week along with a mom from the school, Ellen Fox-Snider.
Wolk-Rogers said, that breathing is how she starts all of her history classes now - it's her way of trying to make what she calls a 'trauma-sensitive classroom.'
"The reality is, in all our classes these kids aren't going to be prepared to sit and learn, focus and concentrate if they're dealing with anxiety," Wolk-Rogers said.
One of her other history students, Alex Miller, was skeptical at first.
"I was like, 'this teacher's nuts,'" Miller remembered. "I don't know what she's doing right now because, what is soft belly breathing? That's like the weirdest thing ever."
But Wolk-Rogers did get him breathing at the beginning of history class.
"It's a big part of our school now and I'm glad because it's kinda shifting the culture," he said. "Deep breaths, you know just one at a time, in and out."
Now he does it at home, too. Miller, 15, also just finished his sophomore year. And just like Suresh, he was new to Stoneman Douglas this year. He wasn’t here when the shooting happened. He moved from Orlando when his parents got jobs here last summer.
"I'm just looking forward to see this grow, and potentially having others schools in Broward County begin to institute this club, having it be standard" - Alex Miller
He says he felt overwhelmed balancing this new school and how to talk about the shooting on top of everything else that he has going on - new friends, track, band, tests, AP classes.
Now, he said he feels like he can check in about how he and his friends are doing.
"Bringing it up to my friends is kind of a daily occurrence now," Miller said about Mind-Body Ambassadors Club. "Like, 'what'd you do in mind-body the other day?' or 'how are you feeling? Are you stressed?'"
Broward County Public Schools recently approved more trainings from the Center For Mind-Body Medicine and two are scheduled for later this month. Some of the students from the new club will be going.
The organizers are clear that this is not therapy and shouldn't be considered a substitute for professional help if someone is struggling to cope.
"I see it more as complimentary," Wolk-Rogers said.
What students share with each other in their small groups is confidential - unless they express that they plan to hurt themselves or others. If that happens, they get referred to professional help.
Over the summer, students Alex Miller and Arthy Suresh will be working on the club for next year, now that all of the small groups who have learned the basic exercises will all be meeting together. And a lot of work has gone into making the club official. A charter, bylaws, a petition with at least 25 student signatures, and a council of students to lead it were needed to get it going.
Both Miller and Suresh say they hope every high school in Broward County will eventually have a stress relief club set up like this one. It's the 'ambassador' in the club name.
"We're gonna set up different events around the community," Suresh said. "And kids can lead mind-body groups, and they can just spread it to a larger group of people."
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly identified Arthy Suresh as Arthy Surash. We regret the error.