Truckee nonprofit mentors local middle school boys while making skateboard art
September 4, 2017
Over 500 local young men have completed a five-week course that equips them with coping skills they’ll lean on for the rest of their lives, and that number is growing because it’s a fun program.
Positively Rolling is a nonprofit organization based in Truckee, and coordinated through Sierra Expeditionary Learning School.
“There was a large number of suicides in our community and a lot of them happened to be boys. Suicide is a topic that hits very close to home for me for a lot of reasons,” said Vicki Isacowitz, program director of Positively Rolling.
“The community said, ‘What can we do?’ and as a local educator and someone who cares about mental health, I thought that something needed to happen, specifically for boys in the area,” she said.
Positively Rolling’s middle school boys program grew from the belief that surrounding young men with positive role models would open conversations around taboo topics like asking for help, reaching out for support, and hopefully preventing someone from feeling so isolated that they choose suicide.
“We met with likeminded individuals and came up with the idea for something that seems cool for boys and that teaches them, most importantly, to tell someone when you or someone you know is sad or seems like they’re hurting,” Isacowitz said.
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The first half of the puzzle was setting kids up for success in adulthood by understanding their feelings and how to adapt to whatever life throws their way.
The second half was finding a way to make it appealing to teenage boys, something fun for them to participate in that would let them break down walls, feel comfortable in their environment, and genuinely enjoy the time they spent with their mentors.
“You can’t just have the conversation, there has to be a ‘cool’ factor … skateboarding,” Isacowitz said.
The boys who participate in Positively Rolling attend their session like another scheduled elective class. They start with time to discuss various topics like what it means to be a man, how to be your own best version of a man, and how to handle successes and failures in life.
After dedicating time to talk with the children about how they can be the best version of themselves, each boy paints a bare skateboard deck to bring their interpretation of their discussions to life.
Co-founder Kim Bradley also works for the school district with their wellness program, and helped see Positively Rolling come to fruition.
“It just felt like we needed to be making more connections with our middle school boys so they have positive role models in their lives, and so they feel safe talk about what it means to be a man,” Bradley said. “We don’t often carve out that time to talk about these things, but here we’re doing it while doing fun things like art with the skateboards,” she added.
The program’s non-traditional approach to addressing heavy topics makes it approachable for the children, and creates a space with time specifically given to them to know that they are not alone.
“The sooner we can connect them with an adult, then when things do get hard they have that person and know they aren’t alone,” Bradley said.
“I think suicide is connected to feeling like no one understands you and feeling completely isolated. These kids connect with their mentors and with each other so we can help normalize it, so they know that we all have hard times and there are ways we can get through it,” she added.
In these growing stages children are starting to learn more about life, the goal is that the tougher life’s challenges get, the better equipped and supported they are to confidently make it through.
Isacowitz said that the only unfortunate part of the program is that it only lasts five weeks. Their educators and mentors would love the opportunity to reach even more kids and spread this program through all of the schools in our area, and beyond state lines.
“I think the idea is that as adults, if we could help any young person we encounter in life and let them know how important it is to ask for help, that it’s OK and it doesn’t diminish who they are because they needed help, then we’re doing our job,” she said.
One of the biggest topics of discussion in Positively Rolling is what it means to be a man.
“Being a man means so many different things today, it’s not just the masculine bread winner,” Isacowitz said.
“Being a man encompasses different characteristics than it used to: masculine, feminine, or a cross between the two. Positively Rolling instills the importance of knowing it’s OK to admit feeling scared, sad, unsure and angry,” she added.
She commented on how easy it is for society to tell young boys to “be a man” or “man up”, among even more degrading terminology. At Positively Rolling, the mentors are changing the conversation, they’re changing how people speak to young men to encourage them to do their best.
“The more we can promote young men asking for help with their emotions, the greater chance there is to preventing suicide,” Isacowitz said.
Something uniquely their own, each boy gets to create a custom skateboard deck that visually represents their thoughts on who they are as men.
Emotionally, they are given a tool bag of coping skills that reaffirms their ability to handle adversity and rise to the occasion with a positive attitude, knowing they are supported every step of the way.
Positively Rolling is always looking for local men to participate as mentors and educators, who are positive role models for the children.
The organization is run entirely through donations and puts all financial assistance to wonderful use in mentoring local children, who can grow up to teach their own children the same invaluable life lessons they learned.
“My hope is that every single boy goes through Positively Rolling,” Isacowitz said.
“Even here in town there are some schools that aren’t part of the program because we don’t have the bandwidth. I’d love to expand to include all middle schools in our area and go nationwide to deliver this program, making it a solid curriculum,” she added.
Cassandra Walker is a features and entertainment reporter for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 530-550-2654 or @snow1cass.