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Before he was an NFL star, his dad asked him a simple question. It changed everything.

'If you reach for the stars, you never know how far you’re going to get.'

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NFL

When Russell Wilson was growing up, his dad would often ask him, "Where are you now?"

"He'd say, 'Russ, you're 17, where are you now?,' or 'You're 25, where are you now?' or 'You're 35, where are you now?'" recalls Wilson.

The hypothetical questions were meant to encourage him to write his own story, to make him really think about what he wants to be doing and how he's going to be making a difference.


Russell Wilson in high school with his dad. Image via Russell Wilson, used with permission.

And while those prompts definitely inspired Wilson, it was another favorite question of his dad's that helped him craft his future: "Why not you?"

That question became his driving motivation, inspiring him to achieve his dreams no matter what obstacles were in his way.

[rebelmouse-image 19533284 dam="1" original_size="600x720" caption="Wilson playing for the Seattle Seahawks. Image via Larry Maurer/Wikimedia Commons." expand=1]Wilson playing for the Seattle Seahawks. Image via Larry Maurer/Wikimedia Commons.

It led him all the way to starting quarterback for the NFL's Seattle Seahawks. But that's just one of many things Wilson's already achieved in his young life. He played football and baseball for North Carolina State University and even played in the minor leagues before transferring to the University of Wisconsin in 2011. There, he set the Football Bowl Subdivision record for passing efficiency and led the team to a Big 10 title in 2012.

He was picked up by the Seahawks in the 2012 NFL Draft and named Rookie of the Year that same year. One year later, he was leading them to their first Super Bowl win.

And even though his father was no longer around to see him accomplish such incredible goals, his encouragement lives on in Wilson.

Now, Wilson is taking his father's message and using it to propel kids all over the world forward through his nonprofit Why Not You.

"It’s the question we all have to ask ourselves," says Wilson.

Image via Russell Wilson, used with permission.

The foundation's mission is simple — empower change in the world one individual at a time and one child at a time.  

It starts with reminding kids they have the power to break through their individual glass ceilings. And yes, that includes his own kids.

"I want to encourage my kids to go places they never thought they could go," says Wilson. "Encourage them to dream bigger than they ever thought they could."

He started Why Not You in 2014, and since then, the foundation has donated millions of dollars to organizations that align with his mission, including Strong Against Cancer and the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

However, what's most inspiring is the work Wilson's done on the ground to give back and lift kids up.

Wilson visiting a patient at Seattle Children's Hospital. Image via Russell Wilson, used with permission.

In 2015, he visited Seattle Children's Hospital every Tuesday, sometimes bringing gifts for the kids being treated.

One kid in particular made a profound impression on Wilson. Milton Wright III was diagnosed with leukemia three times before he was 20, and when Wilson met him, he had essentially been given a death sentence. Wright's doctors told Wilson the young man's only shot of getting better was to try T-cell immunotherapy, but Wright felt hopeless and not motivated to proceed with treatment.

So Wilson went to Wright and told him how his dad was days away from dying, but he refused to give up. He kept on fighting, and eventually came out of a coma and lived for another two years.

After hearing that, Wright agreed to try T-cell immunotherapy, and the treatment miraculously put him on the road to remission. "Within two weeks, he was cancer free," says Wilson.

It's stories like Wright's that remind Wilson he's making a difference, thanks to the strength his dad's simple question gave him.

Image via Russell Wilson, used with permission.

But it's these kids' stories that compel him to keep moving the needle forward now. It's why he's going to be wearing cleats with the aspirations of six different kids from Seattle Children's Hospital printed on them for NFL's initiative My Cause My Cleats during week 13 of the season.

As for his foundation's future, Wilson says the horizon is endless in terms of what he hopes and knows they can accomplish. Based on how far he's already come, thanks to unforgettable familial support, the impact will likely be significant.

It just goes to show how important it is to tell your children that their potential is limitless. Or as Wilson's dad put it:

"If you reach for the stars, you never know how far you’re going to get."

Russell Wilson is one of more than 750 NFL players who will lace up for charitable causes as part of the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats initiative. Starting Nov. 28, 2017, NFL players will reveal their custom cleats, many of which will be auctioned to raise money for the charitable organizations they support. For more information, visit www.nfl.com/mycausemycleats.

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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