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These disabled animals want to teach your kids about compassion and empathy.

"You will never get someone to blossom without attention and love. If you want to change somebody, treat them kindly."

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Dignity Health 2017

G.I. Joe was in a bad place.

He was homeless, living on the street scavenging for food. He was bullied constantly by other dogs — even attacked violently. After losing the use of his hind legs to an injury, Joe had to drag his lower body along the ground when he wanted to move. He was vulnerable, angry, frightened — and a target. Then one day, G.I. Joe was rescued. He was given love, time to heal, and a wheelchair. It's taken years, but empathy and compassion have transformed him. Take a look for yourself:

Joe — better known as G.I. Joe — is happy, healthy, and thriving, thanks to love. All images via Alison Smith/Triple H Farm Miniature Horse Rescue, used with permission.


Now, Joe has a new mission: using his experiences to help teach young kids to prevent bullying by using empathy and compassion.

That’s the idea behind Alison Smith’s Compassion Crew, a little team of dogs and cats with disabilities that team up to help kids understand the abstract concepts of empathy and compassion — and put them to work.

As many adults well know, empathy and compassion aren't skills we're necessarily born knowing how to use well. As the Compassion Crew demonstrates, sometimes the "people" who have the best chance of teaching kids how they work aren’t even people at all.

Smith didn't have the Compassion Crew in mind when she opened her sanctuary farm, Triple H Miniature Horse Rescue, more than a decade ago.

"When I told my accountant that I wanted to open a rescue farm for miniature horses, he laughed at me," said Smith. "He was concerned whether we'd be providing a service anyone needed. I told him if we never rescued a miniature horse, then that was good news since they were clearly all safe and well cared for."

Alison Smith and some members of her multiplying menagerie.

The Triple H farm welcomed its first two miniature horse rescues — Pebbles and Coco — two days after they opened their doors. Since then, they've rescued more than 500 horses and many other animals, including goats, sheep, ducks, chickens, rabbits, and, of course, cats and dogs.

In the winter of 2015, it occurred to Alison that in addition to healing from bullying, the animals at Triple H might be able to teach others a thing or two about bullying itself.

"Kids are sick and tired of hearing about the same old bullying speeches from teachers," said Smith. "I wanted to reach kids in a different way, and introduce them to animals with disabilities. I wanted to tell them why they shouldn’t bully, but also tell them how and show them."

That spark of an idea became the five-member Compassion Crew, where each member has a special message to share.

There’s G.I. Joe, a 3-year-old terrier mix with his trusty wheelchair.

G.I. Joe on the move in the yard.

As a survivor, G.I. Joe has a lot to teach kids about how being the victim of bullying can change us. While G.I. Joe is full of love most of the time, he can still be fearful and even aggressive around other dogs.

"That doesn't make him less lovable," Smith noted. "It teaches kids that being a bully doesn't always happen because someone is just mean. Sometimes really mean things happened to them that made them that way. And G.I. Joe gets better every day because we show him empathy and compassion."

There’s Max, a little 7-year-old shih tzu with a custom wheelchair of his own.

Max may only have three legs, one eye, and half a jaw, but he's still the cuddliest love bug you'll ever meet.

Max's owner didn't give up on him when he was hit by a car; she helped him recover and got him his wheelchair. But after she passed away, Max didn't have a home, so he came to Triple H.

"We like Max because he shows how we can be different and still be loving and nice."

There’s Roy, who was left in a tiny aquarium at a mall pet store, overlooked because of a terrible haircut.

Roy (top left) with a snazzy clip his two best pals, Max and G.I. Joe.

13 years later, Roy is a dashing, handsome poodle who catches lots of eyes. As a member of the Compassion Crew, he's a reminder that judging others by their looks — like bad haircuts or strange clothes — doesn't give them a chance to show us what they're like inside.

"Think of your best friend," Smith said. "Imagine if they were wearing something weird, or had bad hair when you met them. Would you have decided they weren't worth being friends with? Think of all the wonderful memories and experiences you'd have missed!"

There’s Mowgli, who showed up at Triple H rescue one day with untreatable infections in both eyes and now thrives without them.

Mowgli enjoying some time in the autumn leaves.

Mowgli's blindness means she needs a little more help sometimes. Smith said helping her is a great way to practice empathy in real time.

And then there's Martin, a young Labrador cross puppy with boundless love for everyone he meets — even though, like Mowgli, he can't see them.

Martin sits like the very good boy he is.

"Martin loves everyone. He doesn’t care if you’re tall, skinny, have weird hair," gushed Smith. "The only reason he wouldn’t like you is if you treated him badly. Because he can’t see, he can’t prejudge you on your appearance, or make an opinion. He likes you because you’re nice to him."

Very soon there'll be another member of the Compassion Crew, a young mother cat named Nina.

Little Nina and one of her wee kittens.

She was found in the middle of a dusty backroad, huddled atop her three tiny kittens. Nina’s recovering from an eye infection, and she has a birth defect that splits the hemispheres of her lovely little face. She doesn’t look perfect, but she’s a loving mom.

So far, Smith’s Compassion Crew has only visited one school — Highland Acres Elementary.

Compassion Crew! ASSEMBLE! *sounds of arfs and meows*

"When we went to Highland Acres, we said we could stop bullying in 30 seconds or less — if they use empathy and compassion," recalled Smith. "We told them that all of us have superpowers and they’re called empathy and compassion. It was crazy the effect it had on these kids. I didn’t expect that."

From the many letters Smith received afterward, it was clear the visit really resonated.

One of many thank-you letters Smith received.

Starting this winter, Smith will start reaching out to other schools that could welcome the Compassion Crew. "I feel like empathy and compassion are going to be the ticket in turning some of these kids around," she said.

"You will never get someone to blossom without attention and love. If you want to change somebody, you have to treat them kindly. That's true for bullies, too."

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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