“People Here Care”: Inside and Outside of Schools, Efforts Are Underway to Support Wilton Youth in Challenging Times

Image from the Wilton Coalition for Youth website

As Wilton’s youth and teens transition back to school this fall, many are facing significant challenges to their mental health and social-emotional wellbeing.

With a confluence of factors contributing to those mental health challenges — including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic; the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks; and the tragic, sudden losses of three members of the Wilton High School community (a longtime staff member and two students) one year ago — the need for support for Wilton teens at this time is perhaps greater than ever.

The Wilton Public School district, along with many professionals and volunteers in the community, recognize these acute challenges and have been preparing to support community members, particularly Wilton’s youth and teens.

One such active organization is the Wilton Coalition for Youth, which was established last year as a community program of the Wilton Youth Council. The coalition’s purpose, according to its website, is “to strengthen the connections among organizations that serve youth and families in Wilton, in order to prevent substance misuse and promote the mental health and emotional well-being of youth and families.”

Genevieve Eason, executive director of Wilton Youth Council, spoke with GMW about the coalition’s ongoing work. With members that include health care professionals, social workers, faith leaders, police, youth sports, PTA and special education groups, among others, the coalition serves as a forum for youth-serving organizations to network with each other and, ultimately, support Wilton’s youth most effectively.

Eason wants the community to know the forum exists, and that many professionals and volunteers are earnestly working with the common goal of promoting social-emotional well-being among Wilton’s youth.

“People here care,” Eason said.

The coalition held its first meeting of the school year last Friday, Sept. 17.

“The timing of [this] meeting is really significant,” said Linda Rost, LCSW, a keynote speaker at the meeting. She is also the co-coordinator of the Fairfield County Trauma Response Team.

“It’s very fitting that we have this meeting now,” Rost continued, as the coalition discussed the significance and need for sensitivity surrounding the anniversaries of losses the community has experienced.

During the coalition’s meeting, Andrea Leonardi, Wilton’s assistant superintendent, emphasized the schools are very much aware of the heightened emotions many school community members are experiencing this fall.

“Across the district, there are a number of different ways and opportunities that students and staff will have to commemorate the anniversaries if they so choose, or to receive support if they are struggling or feeling triggered,” Leonardi said.

Leonardi also noted, “Kim [Zemo, the Wilton school district’s Safe School Climate Coordinator] has been working with our counselors and mental health staff to make sure that teachers, students and families who may need support during this time, or who may need to come together in community, will have that opportunity.”

Evidence of that was seen in a recent letter from WHS Principal Dr. Robert O’Donnell to families, guardians and staff in the school community.

“We are mindful of the profound losses our community endured a year ago,” O’Donnell wrote.

O’Donnell explained “a tiered support approach” would include direct outreach to impacted individuals, as well as available counseling support to students and staff.

The administration has included WHS student body president Cathy Campbell and vice president Ria Raniwala in the planning of appropriate student activities that are thoughtful and sensitive.

Most notably, the planned activities will allow students their own space and process to grieve, rather than lead coordinated efforts school-wide. O’Donnell wrote that there will be a message board and an anonymous note box in the school’s atrium available “to those who wish to participate,” and provide an outlet for students to “express their fond memories and positive thoughts about their peers.”

He added that there will not be any school-wide announcements over the intercom, “out of respect for personal circumstances,” but that the individuals being remembered still “continue to remain in our thoughts and hearts.”

O’Donnell noted that “one of the strengths of this community is our ability to come together in celebration and in difficult times” and encouraged the community to “check in on each other and… find precious moments of joy and kindness in our community’s togetherness.”

O’Donnell also announced a webinar for parents will be held this evening, Tuesday, Sept. 21 at 7 p.m., focused on helping teens cope with stress, sadness, and grief, and featuring Andrew J. Gerber, MD, PhD, an adolescent psychiatrist and medical director of Silver Hill Hospital.

The webinar will be recorded and posted on the Parent Resources page of the district website, under “Grief Counseling/Support.”

Past webinars of the Wilton Coalition for Youth, including the Sept. 9 panel discussion, Coming Together: Responding to Unfinished Learning and Supporting Social-Emotional Health in the 2021-2022 School Year, may be viewed on the coalition’s website.