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Why a photo of a little boy inspired this mom to turn her town into a refugee sanctuary.

She's changing minds by keeping the issue a conversation rather than a debate.

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Starbucks Upstanders Season 2

Mary Poole was breastfeeding her 9-month-old son when she was horrorstruck by the image of this refugee boy:

The body of Alan Kurdi being taken out of the ocean. All photos provided by Starbucks.

The boy was 3-year-old Alan Kurdi. In the summer of 2015, he drowned along with his mother and brother as they were attempting to escape war-torn Syria.


While holding her own son in her arms, the image was too much for Poole to bear. It simply broke her heart.

That was the moment she became compelled to do something in her town of Missoula, Montana for these fleeing families looking for solace and safety.

In 2016, Poole started Soft Landing — a nonprofit designed to help welcome refugees and integrate them into the community.

Missoulians arguing over Soft Landing's refugee plans.

Its beginnings, however, were more than a little bumpy.

Despite there being a number of compassionate Montanans willing to welcome refugees with open arms, many others remained skeptical. And they weren't alone.

Montana was one of only two states that didn't participate in the refugee resettlement. The news and unjustified alarmism on social media platforms planted fear of the "unknown immigrant" into the minds of many Montanans. Needless to say, that fear wasn't easy to dislodge.

But that didn't stop Poole. She was determined to find a way to broach the subject.

Mary talking to her neighbors at a town meeting.

"I don’t think anyone here is the 'racist,' 'bigot,' 'hater' that people are getting called," said Poole to members of her community at a town meeting.

Her patience and compassion eventually made many of the less supportive citizens more receptive to her mission.

"It never became about convincing anyone to wholeheartedly agree that I was right and they were wrong," says Poole.

Poole talking with a neighbor about the refugee issue in Missoula.

It was simply about showing the people who were distrustful of her mission that refugees aren't looking for anything other than sanctuary.

She regularly sits down and has conversations with Montanans who are feeling uneasy about the refugee resettlements. She listens to their concerns and offers any advice she can. Often just being heard is enough to put folks at ease. Even if they're still on the fence about refugees in general, they become more receptive to Poole's initiative.

“The only thing that I can hope is that when you meet that [refugee] family you can say, ‘Gosh, they’re pretty normal folks,’” said Poole to her neighbors.

One such family that Soft Landing helped bring into Missoula were the Abdullahs from Syria.

Poole meeting with the Abdullahs.

Like so many others, the Abdullah family had to leave their home due to escalating conflict.

“Life became horrific, not only difficult," explains husband and father Jaber Abdullah. "We were all forced to leave. Nobody chose to leave.”

Thanks to the 200 Soft Landing volunteers, however, the Abdullahs have received a warm welcome and are adjusting nicely to life in Missoula.

Poole with a little refugee boy.

The Soft Landing volunteers teach classes, set up apartments, manage in-kind donations, and a number of other things that help refugees, like the Abdullahs, acclimate to their new environment. And so far they've welcomed more than 120 refugees from Eritrea, Congo, Iraq, and Syria.

But it's not just about supporting the refugees — it's about supporting Missoulians who are still on the fence about this whole mission.

The conversation to keep pushing the refugee agenda forward is challenging and ongoing, but for Poole, it's more than worth it.

Refugees playing soccer in Missoula in honor of World Refugee Day.

Especially when it leads to softening views and more receptive neighbors.

"I’ve sat down with people who’ve told me to my face, ‘I will never agree with you, but I’ll be the first to extend a hand when someone gets here,’” says Poole.

With an issue that's as contentious as the refugee crisis, that's more than half the battle.

Learn more about Poole's work here:

Upstanders: From War to Montana

She had never met a refugee, but she mobilized her community to welcome dozens of them.

Posted by Upworthy on Thursday, November 2, 2017
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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