Jen Kroll got pretty excited when she saw a recent Target ad.

No, it wasn't because of the "buy one, get one half off" sweater deal. It wasn't even because flannel sheets were 15% off.

Nope, not at all. (Though, flannel sheets do sound nice...)


Here's what made her week: a photo of an Elsa Halloween costume.

The ad meant so much to her that she posted it on Facebook and had this to say:

Kroll's Facebook post, shared with her permission.

Do you see what Jen saw? The model sporting the dress worn by Elsa of "Frozen" fame has arm crutches!

Yes, that's a big deal. Especially for Jen because here's a photo of her incredibly cute daughter, who just so happens to love Elsa:

I mean, seriously. Can you even with the adorableness?! Photos by Jen Kroll, used with permission.

I reached out to Jen, who's a photographer and mom to three kids, to find out more about her daughter's story.

Jen's youngest child, Jerrensia, came to her family on a medical visa from Haiti in 2011. She was just 14 months old at the time. "The closest diagnosis she fits into is Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita (AMC)," Jen explained to me. That basically means that she has significant issues with her joints. "Specifically," says Jen, "her hip sockets never formed properly, [her] knees were locked at a 90 degree angle, [her] feet were clubbed, and she lacked nearly all muscle tone in her legs."

For two years, Jerrensia was in intense physical therapy. Unfortunately, she didn't make much progress and "despite innovative orthotics, we made the difficult decision to amputate her legs through the knees," Jen shared. And while that must have been a difficult decision, it turned out to be the difference between being completely reliant on a wheelchair to get around and having more mobility options.

Today, Jerrensia is an active 5-year-old who "walks and RUNS everywhere on prosthetic legs and uses arm crutches to compensate for the lack of muscular development in her legs," Jen explained.

Amazing!

Mother and daughter, having some fun with selfies!

Jen talked about the ad and what normalizing disabilities through advertising and media means to kids like her daughter — and, just as importantly, what it means to kids who don't have disabilities.

"In mainstream culture, perfection is valued," she said. (Can I get an amen?!) "Special needs families exist in a subculture. The challenges we face are shared with those who understand them. And we're virtually invisible to the outside world."

Even more than being perceived differently — or worse, being invisible — children with special needs face distinct disadvantages in the world. Jen shared these stories with me that, sadly, aren't uncommon:

"While we have an incredible school that has embraced our daughter and are actively working to provide the best environment conducive to learning, another friend has recently been forced to hire an attorney at great personal cost because her school will not provide safe and accessible entry and exit from the building. Her kids are treated as an inconvenience. This is still happening every day in America.

While we have great acceptance and love in our little social circles, stepping outside of them is a different experience. Our daughter becomes a circus side show and many people lose all their manners. Recently at the zoo, we experienced a school group of a dozen children between the ages of 8-10 who circled our daughter in a play area. They swarmed her, pointing, laughing, and staring at her legs. It was brutal for a 5-year-old. And it took everything in me to not go Mama Bear in the absence of their teachers and chaperones."

"People do not see children like my daughter very often," Jen said. "They don't SEE children with disabilities."

Jen talked about how there aren't many movies with lead characters who have disabilities or special needs, and when they are included, it's usually to teach a lesson to another character.

"So when I saw Target place a child with Spina Bifida front and center, advertising Disney's sweetheart, Elsa, it brought me to tears," she said. "This little girl was no longer invisible. Arm crutches and leg braces were demystified. Target made an effort to make her a part of mainstream culture. Not as an object lesson, but as a beautiful child with a great smile who was clearly excited about being Elsa."

BOOM.

That matters, because sooo many kids with beautiful smiles just like Jerrensia's are complex human beings. They weren't put on this Earth to serve as lessons for others. If our kids can grow up in a world where special needs and disabilities are normalized, others won't perceive them as oddities but as the unique individuals they are.


Kids learn from the world around them, which is why the world around them should be inclusive and representative.

When Jen showed the Target ad to her three kids — 5-year-old Jerrensia and her older brothers, ages 9 and 13 — they were all excited.

One said, “Look at Elsa! She has crutches just like you!" Jerrensia was thrilled. She shouted, "Wow! Just like me!"

Jen summed it up so well, so I'll leave you with her words as a parting thought:

"We work very, very hard to make sure that her little corner of the world is anything but lonely and void of other children with similar abilities. But as far as media is concerned — there is a vast emptiness of children with whom she can relate. A Target ad with one precious little girl dressed as Elsa met her where she was and made the world a little more beautiful and friendly."

Thank you, Target! Now it's time for other retailers to jump on board this important train!

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

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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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