Mother of boy with autism raises $35,000 for school custodian who helped her son
via Tales of an educated Debutante / Facebook

Raymond Brown has been working as a custodian at White Oak Elementary School in Edenton, North Carolina for the past 15 years. He is a beloved figure at the school and Adrian Wood perfectly explained why.

"I've witnessed the way Mr. Brown speaks to visitors and teachers. The way he's never in a hurry or too busy to talk to the children," said the mother of four whose children have all attended White Oak Elementary. "The way he's willing to clean up bathroom accidents or help me post stuff on the walls or set up for PTA events."

According to Wood, Brown and his wife have been married for 38 years and have four kids, but unfortunately, they lost one in a motorcycle accident.



Wood also has a very personal reason why she thinks Brown is so special. He has become a good friend to her youngest child, Amos, a seven-year-old boy with autism.

"Sending three typical kids to school — you're sad, but you're excited for them," Wood explained. "Sending Amos to school was such a different path. He was three when he started school. He was in diapers and he didn't speak. But after Mr. Brown started saying 'hello' to him and calling him 'Famous Amos,' Amos started saying, 'Hey Brown," when he saw him. He wasn't even saying 'Daddy' at that point, so it was really something."

Amos's relationship with Brown has made it easier for him to get along with other children, too.

"You have this man that everybody loves suddenly paying attention to this little boy," Wood added, "Amos is a hard friend to have. He takes a lot more than he gives and that's tough for children. But those kids saw that he was popular and loved and they started fighting over who would get to hold Amos' hand on the way to the classroom. It meant so much to me for him to be so favored by the other children at school, and Mr. Brown had a big hand in that."

Brown was nominated to win a $10,000 prize in the North Carolina Schools Heroes contest, but sadly he didn't win. The loss affected Wood so deeply, she decided to create her own award for the custodian.

Wood has a popular blog called Tales of the Educated Debutante and when she told her followers about the award for Brown, the community stepped up, raising $35,000 for him.

On March 20, Brown dressed up in a tuxedo to take anniversary photos with his family at a local waterfront. When he arrived, he was surprised by Wood and members of the community with the award.

Mr. Brown's Surprise www.youtube.com

"I was very surprised," said Mr. Brown. " To see all those people shouting and hollering 'Mr. Brown, congratulations,' it was beautiful and it's hard to explain, but I know this community loves Mr. Brown."

Michelle Newsome, the principal at White Oak, says her staff is just as fond of Brown as the students and parents.

"Mr. Brown is really, truly so deserving of all of this and then some," said Newsome. "He's our rock-steady fella here at White Oak... he's just a gem and we are so lucky to have him here. There isn't a child in this building that doesn't know who Mr. Brown is and that Mr. Brown cares for them and loves them."

So now, the big question is, what's Brown going to do with his gift?

"My wife has a little bit of plans for it," Brown explained. "We'll probably travel and see some of our family that we haven't seen since COVID. And she wants to do some work on the house — pull some carpet out and get a bigger porch. I just want a used work truck for myself."

Connections Academy

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

True

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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