Gestalt Community Schools pilot program aims to help parents cope with pandemic-related stress

Work, school, family, and all of the between—but all in one house. In 2020, it felt like the “outside” closed, and more time at home increased tensions in families and emphasized parenting needs of all kinds—including mental health support.

Yetta Lewis, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of Gestalt Community Schools, saw some of these needs in the families she and her staff serve.

“While the pandemic has produced multiple challenges, we expect that they will last post-pandemic. As a result, Gestalt launched a well-being pilot to bring awareness and to start our journey on creating a village focused on self-care and wellness,” she said.

In January, they launched Known, Loved, and Educated: The Gestalt Well-Being Initiative based on survey answers. The family-focused program targets ways to cope with stress created by the pandemic. Holly Shears, an elementary school teacher with Gestalt Community Schools, participates in a yoga class as part of charter school network’s Known, Loved, and Educated self-care and wellness program. (Submitted)

Gestalt is a K-12 network of public charter schools. They distributed a Fall Climate Survey for the Gestalt community last year, which yielded a 67% response rate or answers from 2,700 staff and family members.

Lewis said over 85% of the families reported that COVID-19 is having a “deeply profound” impact on them and over 70% of the families reported that the community and nation’s racial unrest is having a “deeply profound” impact on them.

Families further reported experiencing food insecurities, frustration, and anxiety.

Lewis said they do many activities with parents but not any focused strictly on mental health. They had never worked in “this vein of self-care and wellness.” So, Known, Loved, and Educated, is fresh territory for them.

Known, Loved, and Educated focuses on three areas. First is creating awareness, which means weekly self-care emails and videos. The second is building capacity, meaning new experiences and activities for families to learn new stress-coping techniques. The third is immediate counseling support, meaning deep reflection, individual counseling, and family counseling.

Sessions include activities like journaling, yoga, and painting.

Debunking Myths
To help fight the stigma around seeking mental health and support services, Lewis said they decided not to directly call the program “mental health support,” because the way things are named determines the way people engage.

“We asked people if they wanted to debrief individually, as a family and with each session we had more and more people signing up to decompress and calm down,” she said. “Physical and mental health—you have to package it with some experiences. It debunks some myths.”

Lewis said many families reported that having access to counseling without bureaucracy or long waits was beneficial. It was also a way for families to process their emotions. They felt empowered that they had techniques that were no cost for relaxation, self-reflection, and calmness.

Though the pilot program ends on March 31, Lewis said they hope to apply the lessons learned through the series to a long-term approach and more programming for the upcoming school year.

After the pilot ends, they will evaluate program results and seek more funding to create more experiences for families.

“The pilot is showing us what we need to continue to do work on and what we need to stop. We are elevating the voices of the parents in helping us determine the next steps,” Lewis said. “They were telling us overwhelmingly that this helps them deal with stress and anxiety. Most importantly, they replicated some of these programs without us.”

'Stress Is At An All-Time High'
Brijin Shelton, a Gestalt parent, said both she and her son look forward to the sessions, especially the ones that involve physical activity.

She said she decided to participate because she is a firm believer that, “the atmosphere of the household can affect a scholar’s education.”

“Especially during this pandemic, I know that stress is at an all-time high in families and I wanted to explore new ways to help deal with that not only for myself but also for my scholar,” she said.

Shelton said this is her first time participating in a program like this, but it has been beneficial, forcing her to not only examine her stress levels but release unidentified stress.

“I wasn't really sure what to expect with the program,” she said. “However, over the past few weeks, I have started to look forward to the sessions because I know that I will take at least 30-45 to just relax and release. My son is excited because he considers it mommy and son time.”

'You Can Really See The Joy'
Shequilla Mallory, a Gestalt staff member, said while participating in the wellness program she got a chance to see a different side of scholars and parents, especially in the virtual sessions.

She said students were engaged and eager to participate and parents were right beside them.

“You can really see the joy,” she said.

This was also her first time participating in a program like this. As an educator, she said the program helped her cope with feeling overwhelmed.

She said journaling has been one of her biggest boosts while at work and yoga helps when she goes home.

“When I journal, I write down all of my feelings and write down what's making me feel that way. Then I try my best to find a solution to the negative feeling and focus on the things that are making me feel great. Yoga has helped relieve my stress. It helps me to stay calm by joining my body and mind,” she said.

[This article is funded in part by ACE Awareness Foundation as part of a series on adverse childhood experiences in Memphis, including the people and organizations offering innovative solutions to protect and heal the city's youth.]

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Erica Horton.

Born and raised in Memphis, Erica Horton is a freelance journalist that loves to learn and write about almost anything. Email her story ideas here