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A letter to my grandpa and other fathers of the fatherless.

Know that you simply cannot ever know how much you’re doing just by being around.

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Fathers Everywhere

We almost bit it, right there on a Minnesota gravel road.

My grandpa had taken me out for a summer afternoon ride on his motorcycle, a Honda, and it had been a wonderful excursion of warm, sunny freedom. I enjoyed the wind rushing past me, how strangely heavy my head felt on top of my neck with the helmet around it, and feeling like one mass moving in unison: me, my grandpa, and the motorcycle.

I was 12, and I’d been going for motorcycle rides with him since I was little, at first in sidecars, and later on (I don’t remember the exact age), on the actual bike. It was always a little scary, but I’d beaten back thoughts of trepidation many times, and nothing bad had ever come of those rides.


I don’t think we were headed anywhere in particular that day. We were just enjoying being alive.

But something happened on the gravel road. I still don’t know what it was. It wasn’t a curve in the road or anything jumping out in front of us, but something just gave way in the dusty gravel beneath the tires and the bike got all swervy. It tilted for just a second or two, and then grandpa got it under control again. We were fine. We were alive.

But I think it scared him more than he let on. We took the truck everywhere for the next couple of weeks.

We were spending the summer together in Backus, Minnesota, that year.

We lived in southeastern Wisconsin  —  he and my grandmother, a few of my youngest aunts, and my little cousin  — in the house he built while he worked at American Motors. But he was retired by that summer, and he liked to go up to his little plot of land in Minnesota from time to time to get away.


My grandpa.

During this particular summer, my grandma put my aunt in the driver’s seat of her trusty car, packed me and my little cousin and my two other aunts in with her, and sent us off to surprise my grandpa in Minnesota during his alone time. Truth be told, I’m pretty sure she thought he had a woman on the side and wanted us to either catch him at something and report back or just throw a wrench in his enjoyment.

We didn’t catch him at anything. We got there, and he was surprised but happy to see us. We all stayed in the trailer he had on the little plot of land. We tucked away in various bedrooms and sleeper sofas, and we spent a week there with him.

I was having so much fun that when the week was up, I didn’t want to go home with my aunts and cousin. If we’d cramped his style at all, he certainly set it aside because he had no qualms about me staying there with him for the rest of the summer.

It’s an amazing feeling, to be welcomed as part of someone’s “alone” time.

For someone you really like being around to basically say, “I can have you around and still be alone.”

To this day, I still feel like that’s the best kind of companionship (and it’s the same kind I enjoy with my kids, too).

We played cribbage and war at a round maple table in the trailer kitchen that summer, a table sometimes covered with crumbs from saltines or ashes from his cigarettes.

I’d pull ticks out of the dog and we’d snuff them out in the ashtray. We went fishing at 5 a.m. on Pine Mountain Lake, with a thermos of black coffee that we shared and canned meat spread that we’d eat on crackers.

We’d bring home what we caught, clean it, fillet it, and pan-fry it for dinner. We’d visit his relatives on a farm and do farm work. I shingled the farmhouse roof with a new cousin I’d met that summer. I learned to shoot a rifle.

We visited his friend who ran an oat-processing facility, and I got to see how whole oats were delivered, and the process they went through to be turned into rolled oats.

He took me, on his motorcycle, to a Chippewa powwow in Hackensack, where I was welcomed to dance. We went to tiny diners in little towns where he knew the locals, and I’d eat delicious, greasy bacon cheeseburgers. Sometimes we’d just sit around and do our own things and not talk much at all. I liked to read, and my grandpa liked to think.

I didn’t have a dad growing up. In some ways, I didn’t have a mom, either.

Lucky for me, my grandparents really stepped in, and my grandpa was the closest thing to a dad I ever had. He was a farm boy from Minnesota who fought in the Korean War, survived, and settled in Wisconsin to work for American Motors, marry my grandma, and have seven kids.

He wasn’t highfalutin, but like I said, he liked to think. He liked to enjoy the quiet and be alone with his thoughts, and that’s something I picked up from him. He was, at his core, a planner and a philosopher. If he was a feminist, he never expressed it, but the manner in which he treated me implied the utmost faith in my versatility and competence as a human being, and I was never coddled, condescended to, or counted out.

I lost my little brother that summer to cancer. That might be the real reason I was sent to Minnesota to stay with grandpa: to keep me even further from the last weeks of the illness.

A couple of years later, I lost my grandma, too. I would have my grandpa for another decade after grandma died, until I was 25.

He’d been sick with emphysema and a broken hip during his last few years, and the doctors didn’t think he would make it out of the hospital alive that time. But he did, and I knew I’d been granted a chance to spend as much time as I could with him.

I’d been so busy before that with two small children, college, and work. But I resolved to find or make time however I could. I visited him on my lunch breaks nearly every day. I brought him his favorite catfish on Fridays. He wanted to quit smoking, something he’d done since he was 10 years old on his farm, and everyone in our family thought he was nuts. “What is the point?” “It won’t help your emphysema at this stage.” “That just seems like a lot of agony for nothing.”

But I understood. Sometimes I felt like I understood my grandpa better than anyone because of all the time we’d spent together. I understood that he knew it wouldn’t help, but he just needed to know that he wasn’t beholden to anything, that he was going out of this world his own man, addicted to nothing.

When I lost my grandpa, it was different than when I’d lost my brother and grandma.

I was so young when those deaths happened. But with my grandpa, I was old enough to know exactly what he’d meant to me and exactly what I was losing. I knew exactly how shaped I’d been by my time with him, and the grief was overwhelming and consuming.

I know now, 10 years after he died, that I was lucky to get to experience that agony and loss, because the alternative would have been having no one to lose.

I may not have had a father, but I had this man — my scrappy, minimalist, freewheeling-yet-planning-ahead grandfather who wanted me around and had confidence in me as a person.

I’m not sure I got a raw deal without a father at all. In fact, I think for me, it went the very best way it could have.

I’m a strong, accomplished woman, a wise mother, a person who thinks she can do lofty things just because she has decided to, and a thinker, a planner. I have never let anyone or anything entrap me or keep me stuck in a phase I don’t want to be in. I stand on my own two feet, and I’ve made a life for myself with these two hands.

Grandpa Loran: Without all the cues about who I am that I got from you, I don’t know that these things would be true today.

For those who are fathers to a person who doesn’t have one — whether you’re a stepdad, an uncle, a grandpa, an older brother, or a family friend — know that you simply cannot ever know how much you’re doing just by being around.

By saying: “I like having you around. You’re good company, and I much prefer having your help to doing these tasks on my own,” you're making a world of difference. It doesn’t take anything fancy, but it really does mean the world to the kid you’re sharing your time with.

Happy Father’s Day, all.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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