When then eighth grader Grace O’Hanlon joined North Salem High School’s new Warr;ors Mental Health and Wellness Club (the “;” is meant to signify the pause that people take when struggling with mental health and they choose to continue their life), she did so thanks to her mom’s encouragement.
“I struggled a lot with my self-confidence, and I wasn’t really good at putting myself out there,” O’Hanlon remembers. “So my mom pushed me to join Warr;ors to help me get out of my shell a little bit and to make some new friends.”
One year later, O’Hanlon did the same for her friend Sam Vilkelis. She convinced Vilkelis to attend a meeting in ninth grade, and Vilkelis decided to join. Little did they know that they would later go on to become co-presidents for their junior and senior years, or that their leadership would have a residual impact throughout their school district.
Members of the Warr;ors Club are advocates who support their classmates who may be impacted by mental illness; they also teach and encourage compassion towards others. The club gives students the opportunity to gain experience in public speaking and attracts those considering a career in the helping professions, or anyone who is seeking connection within their school community.
O’Hanlon and Vilkelis say they’ve grown so much since they first joined Warr;ors.
“I used to struggle with public speaking, and I didn’t really have a lot of confidence when I was younger,” O’Hanlon says. “I’ve definitely gained a lot more public speaking skills, and I put myself out there a lot more. There’s just so much that I’ve learned from this club, and if I never joined in eighth grade, I would probably still be the same person I used to be.”
“I agree,” Vilkelis chimes in. “Especially about public speaking. It can be a lot to try to talk to kids your age. Sometimes it can be very nerve-wracking. And I do struggle with some social anxiety, but it’s helped a lot. I think it’s a really great way to help people grow. Because if you never try, then you don’t grow.”
Melissa Smith, the club’s advisor and a school counselor, has watched them both grow over the years. She says they’ve “matured into great public speakers,” who are now able to capture the attention of the sixth and seventh graders they present to.
“I’ve watched them become more confident in themselves,” she says. “And I think they’ve both learned to manage their own challenges much better – they are now much more open about discussing their personal challenges with others.”
Demonstrating sympathy and unity
O’Hanlon and Vilkelis say their favorite annual event is P.S. I Love You Day, which focuses on suicide awareness. On that day, the club spreads the message that students are never alone. Everyone at their school is encouraged to wear purple, which demonstrates they’re standing up against bullying.
“That’s one day that really stands out to me,” says O’Hanlon. “The whole school comes together and wears purple, and we see so many kids being nice to each other that day.”
The event also promotes mental health awareness with the ultimate goal of preventing suicide.
“I love that day,” Vilkelis adds. “Because the whole day really feels like an ‘I love you’ day. You should remember to be nice every day, but that day is really a big reminder to remember those people who are there for you and just tell them how you care for them and how you love them. And just to be kind.”
“This year, the theme was labels and we set up a table at our school,” Vilkelis continues. “During the lunch periods, kids came over to us and we told them to write down insults they’d been called. Then, they had to crumple up the insults and throw them out. It was a really great cleansing activity. It felt good to get rid of the paper because it demonstrated that the labels didn’t matter anymore once they threw them out.”
The day was started by sisters Jaimie and Brooke Dipalma. One day, their father, Joseph Dipalma, dropped Brooke off at school, and she told her dad, “I love you,” to which he said “I love you” back. Little did she know that he would take his own life a few hours later – hence the name P.S. I Love You Day.
The sisters believe that an entire community wearing purple demonstrates that there are always people around them who care, people who they can turn to if they are struggling.
This year, Vilkelis and O’Hanlon interviewed the sisters before the event. On P.S. I Love You Day, they broadcast their interview throughout the school. The goal was to help everyone understand the significance of wearing the color purple on that day.
“I think it was so impactful,” says O’Hanlon. “The sisters spoke about the day and their thoughts about it. I think it really influenced and impacted everyone, especially about what the day means.”
Both believe this day helped bring the school together, which is the sisters’ intended goal. The sisters believe that “tragedy should not be the force for togetherness; togetherness should be the force that ends tragedies.”
Community of warriors
Every May, the club hosts a mental health fair to unite everyone for a series of communal activities, as well as showcase local vendors and mental health resources.
“I know that students love having the mental health fair every May,” says O’Hanlon. “It’s really impactful. We have vendors from different organizations there so students can learn about them. They’ll have activities at their station, and it helps people who are struggling learn about different places that can help them get through a tough situation.”
“And, because it’s outside, instead of in the classrooms, it’s also a lot of fun,” she continues. “They play basketball instead of just looking at their phones. And, last year, we had a snow cone truck; this year, we’ll have a smoothie truck. So it’s a fun way to get the word out, celebrate our differences and have a nice day.”
The club has received feedback from students that it’s as much a fun day as it is an insightful one, as it really does help people find much-needed resources to ensure that they do not struggle alone or in silence.
Opening the door
In North Salem Middle School, you will find a door with signatures from sixth graders over the past several years. Why, you might wonder? This door is part of another Warr;ors project, appropriately called, The Door Project.
The Door Project was started by Josh Yandt, a student at another high school.
“He had a lot going on in his life and a lot of trauma,” Vilkelis explains. “But he started holding the door for people every day – he just smiled and greeted them. He made a video that we now show to people because it demonstrates that you don’t know what people are going through. So, something as simple as just smiling at someone, saying hello, or just being kind and holding the door could make someone’s day. It’s a way to show kids that actions have an impact and little things matter.”
“So, we actually have a door at our school, a physical door, in our hallway,” she continues. “And the sixth graders sign it every year. We had it at a table years ago when it was new. But now, every year, the sixth graders get excited to sign it. It’s a nice way to remind them that the little things do matter.”
Setting the tone
The Warr;ors Club hosts several other events throughout the year, including Bullying Awareness Month where they speak to middle school students about the impacts of bullying, several events related to gratitude and reminding people of what they’re thankful for, and they also host a dance for students in the school’s STEP program.
“The STEP program is for kids with Autism and other disabilities,” Vilkelis explains. “Last year, we had a dance with them, and I think that was one of my favorite things that we’ve ever done as a club. It made such a positive impact, and the faculty loved it, too. Everyone was so happy. I think the opportunity for the kids to have a dance was just amazing.”
Serving as co-presidents for the past two years, O’Hanlon and Vilkelis have made a tremendous impact on the club.
“They’re so compassionate,” says Smith. “They’re genuine and empathetic. They bring their own personal experiences to the table and because of that other kids see how real they are and feel comfortable talking about their own struggles.”
And Smith says they’ve also helped get an important message across to everyone at their school.
“Students are the front line,” says Smith, “and we have to acknowledge and respect that.”
This article was published in the May/June 2023 print edition of Katonah Connect.