This Woman is Closing the Gap for Those in Poverty - And It’s Working
TD Bank

Tanya Whitaker (right)

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Tanya Whitaker's life mantra is a large part of why she's so driven to help those in need in her community of Clinton, Maryland. It boils down to a Gilbert Young painting called "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother."

"I knew I needed to do something to help break down systemic barriers and build bridges for not only the underprivileged, but the underserved," Tanya tells Upworthy. "I am assisting my brother in our community."

Tanya has been working to lift up underserved communities in almost every aspect of her life. She works in the career and technical education department for the District of Columbia's State Superintendent of Education, and helps students realize goals they didn't even know were possible. That work informed the development of her nonprofit, Skills Today Advance Tomorrow Development Center (STAT DC), which aims to "advance the economic mobility and social progress in low and moderate-income communities," she explains.

Even before starting STAT DC, Tanya felt compelled to help people have access to what they need, regardless of their circumstances. This became particularly clear to her during the pandemic, which left so many more people in need of food and/or shelter. "It has been my experience through this pandemic that all economic lines have been blurred," she says.

One thing that really stood out to her is how many children went hungry during the pandemic because schools were closed.

"America was faced with the fact that most school-aged children were getting most of their nutritional needs from the school," explains Tanya. "And without that outlet to tap into, parents were forced to get into food lines that they never thought would be part of their daily or weekly needs."

In response to the need she saw, Tanya created a sizable network of volunteers to feed the homeless in her community. Just like in her day job, she's the manager making it all happen, from organizing donations, deliveries and all the other working parts it takes to carry out such a gargantuan task on a regular basis. "I have such an awesome group of dedicated volunteers," says Tanya. "This could not be done to this magnitude without such a group." Even her 78-year-old father is involved.

Tanya Whitaker (left)Photo courtesy of TD Bank

She often doesn't have enough funds to cover the costs of her food distribution program. Thanks to a donation from TD Bank from their #TDThanksYou campaign, however, she should be able to keep her work going through the holidays — when food insecurity and homelessness are most prevalent in the U.S. "This directly impacts the daily operation of the food distribution. What the public does not see is the day-to-day expenses that we incur to make this happen," says Tanya.

TD Thanks You is TD Bank's annual campaign that aims to bolster its customers, colleagues, and communities by giving back to them in meaningful ways. This year, the 2021 #TDThanksYou campaign is highlighting stories of people who are spreading positivity and optimism in their communities without asking for anything in return. Tanya's work certainly seems to fit the bill.

Tanya's team distributes food every Thursday, but that means organization and packing of food has to begin Tuesday. Food is assembled into sections, non-perishables, meat, dairy, frozen food and produce. Thursdays tend to be the busiest days because they typically get a surprise batch of food that needs to be sorted. After all the food is sectioned out, they start assembling it into bags and prepare those bags for distribution.

Tanya's been able to keep food distribution efforts of this magnitude going with the help of several businesses. And she made those connections by literally knocking on doors.

One relationship came about when she realized a nearby mall, and its parking lots, had been sitting unused. "I drove around the parking lot until I found a security office door. I knocked on what seemed to be an abandoned, empty room, and met my wonderful angel, Ms. Carolyn Martin, the property manager for the Landmark Mall's division for Howard Hughes Corporation."

Tanya explained her mission to feed the homeless, and the next day, Ms. Martin welcomed her to use one of the mall's parking lots free of charge.

"It is imperative that we, as socially responsible individuals, not wait on government programs or a 'knight in shining armor' to come to the rescue," says Tanya.

People like Tanya use compassion and fervor to fight food insecurity, homelessness and economic inequality every day. They're not waiting for a "knight" to come to the rescue; they just pick up the proverbial sword themselves.

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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