2023 Smile Program
In the past, the phrase ‘mental health’ often carried a negative stigma in certain communities, unfortunately associated with weakness. However, the shifting tides of our world have brought about a powerful change. Mental health is now seen as a beacon of hope, encouraging individuals to speak out and embrace the concept that seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but rather an act of strength. One notable change is the growing support within the sports community, where influential figures like LeBron James, Kevin Love, Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and numerous other athletes have stepped forward to emphasize the significance of mental well-being.
The effects of the pandemic on our youth have been profound. Beyond the physical health implications, the social and emotional well-being of young individuals bore a significant brunt. The sudden shift to remote learning and limited social interactions left many adolescents and children grappling with feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and uncertainty. The absence of in-person schooling, extracurricular activities, and the support systems that schools often provide compounded the challenges faced by our young generation.
Furthermore, the rise of social media and its constant stream of information, while connecting individuals virtually, also contributed to increased stress and pressure on the younger demographic. The comparison culture fostered by social platforms added a new layer of anxiety, leading to a heightened need for mental health support among our youth. This generation faced a unique set of circumstances that demanded a more robust approach to addressing their mental well-being.
At Heal LA, the paramount initiative on our agenda was establishing a program dedicated to mental health. Providing resources for youth in a manner that’s supportive and comfortable is essential; introducing mental health topics to young individuals should never be an unsettling experience. Understanding this, we delved into community feedback, notably from Loreto Street Elementary, and engaged with experts in the mental health field.
The SMILE Program, which stands for “Supporting Minds with Inspiration, Love, and Encouragement,” represents an innovative and holistic approach devoted to nurturing mental health among our students. This unique initiative seamlessly integrates the therapeutic benefits of yoga and mindfulness sessions, led by ‘Strong, Calm + Playful,’ with the comforting companionship of therapy dogs from ‘Sundog Therapy.’ These components converge to craft an engaging experience that empowers and uplifts our students.
Through the SMILE Program, children acquire practical tools to navigate everyday challenges, fostering emotional resilience and self-awareness. Our comprehensive curriculum emphasizes self-care practices, the nurturing of healthy relationships, and the creation of a supportive environment, equipping children with invaluable strategies to prioritize their mental well-being.
The ‘Strong, Calm + Playful’ team firmly believes that a strong body, calm mind, and playful spirit collectively contribute to a peaceful, present, and joyous state of being. Utilizing a blend of yoga, mindfulness exercises, and carefully selected activities, their mission is to guide children toward a harmonious connection between body, breath, mind, and spirit. This transformative approach empowers students to forge profound and meaningful connections within themselves and with others.
To enrich this immersive experience, therapy dogs from ‘Sundog Therapy’ are introduced into the curriculum. This inclusion allows students to foster positive relationships with animals and peers, develop vital social skills, nurture empathy, refine perspective-taking abilities, enhance motor coordination, expand cognitive capacities, and acquire valuable vocational skills. An experienced occupational therapist leads the class, ensuring that each child receives expert support and guidance throughout this transformative journey.
The SMILE Program, a structured 12-week series held during school hours, accommodates a total of 30 students from Loreto Street Elementary, merging two classrooms. These sessions welcome 5th graders who have encountered significant personal challenges and, notably, extend this opportunity to special education students, providing an inclusive experience that addresses challenges these students might typically face in participating in such activities, not due to lack of invitation but owing to the hurdles they may encounter.
Goals for the Smile Program:
- Foster Emotional Resilience
- Promote Mindfulness
- Support Self-Care Practices
- Encourage Health Relationships
- Create a Supportive Environment
- Empower Lifelong Skills
The program name, ‘SMILE,’ was inspired by Michael Jackson’s favorite song by Charlie Chaplin. Heal LA creatively transformed the word ‘smile’ into an acronym for the program, standing for ‘Supporting Minds with Inspiration, Love, and Encouragement.’ Seeking input from our social media followers, we engaged our Instagram and Twitter communities to suggest Michael Jackson songs that could be fitting names for our program. Among the numerous responses received, ‘Smile’ emerged as the most popular choice. We extend our heartfelt gratitude to everyone who actively participated in this engaging and meaningful decision-making process!