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‘Today’ show turns spotlight on Carroll County senior’s work on children’s mental health

Diana Flores stood near the middle of the field inside Winters Mill High School’s stadium Friday morning, backed by about 20 schoolmates who kept social distance while holding signs and wearing school gear. While they held their places, faculty and Carroll County school officials surrounded the perimeter, being sure not to stand in the way of any camera angles.

This was their time in the spotlight, courtesy of NBC’s “Today” show.

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When a crew from the long-running morning program shows up at 4 a.m. to prepare for a live TV segment, one might expect jitters to be evident. But Flores said she wasn’t too nervous once host Morgan Radford hit her spot and roamed through the group of students to give NBC’s national audience a glimpse at the Children’s Health Matters! Campaign 2020 Student Champion of the Year.

“It was very hectic, but it was so exciting and rewarding,” said Flores, flanked by school counselor Melisa Hannon. “A feeling of fulfillment. ... I was nervous beforehand, but when you’re in the moment it feels very natural. It feels very personal.”

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Flores was recognized for her commitment to help raise awareness and reduce the stigma of children’s mental health. She’s a member of the executive board for Falcons of Strength, the Sources of Strength chapter at Winters Mill that started last year. Sources of Strength is an international youth suicide, violence, bullying, and substance abuse prevention program that empowers peer leaders, according to its website.

Flores manages the Falcons of Strength social media sites and updates them with challenges, resources, and important information. She attends all of the weekly virtual meetings and has reached out to local agencies to set up meetings for students.

“To be there since the beginning, it’s really meant so much to me,” Flores said. “I feel like I’ve grown as a person, I’ve helped everyone in our school just kind of learn. And I’ve learned so much along the way as well.”

The Children’s Mental Health Matters! Campaign’s mission statement describes bringing together nonprofits, schools and other agencies with the following goals: raising public awareness of the importance of children’s mental health and substance use, helping reduce the stigma of mental health, and connecting families, educators and providers throughout Maryland with resources to help children.

The campaign invites Maryland schools to participate by becoming a school champion.

After schools closed to students March 13 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Winters Mill’s FOS group turned to social media to connect with their peers while they were separated.

Taking inspiration from the larger Sources of Strength accounts, Flores started crafting social distancing challenges that are personalized to her school’s community. Some included sending messages of support to people living in assisted living facilities and outside activities to get fresh air.

Flores said getting an opportunity to put mental health awareness in the spotlight is always the goal.

“It’s OK to talk about it, and not just that. You not only help yourself ... but you inspire other people,” she said. “You share your own story, you connect with other people and they motivated. They get inspired.”

Radford on Friday talked to Flores and Winters Mill junior Conor Doyle, an officer for Falcons of Strength, during the live interview for “Today,” and the school’s falcon mascot made an appearance as well. Principal Michael Brown, another one of Radford’s interviewees, served as a cheerleader for the students during a few live and recorded shots before getting to say “That’s a wrap!” into the microphone as everyone applauded.

The students left the stadium and some teachers returned to the school, presumably to begin their day of remote instruction.

Hannon, an advisor for Falcons of Strength, remembers Flores as a shy ninth-grader but said she has seen her blossom into the active 17-year-old she is now.

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“She’s just an advocate for mental health,” Hannon said. “I am so blessed to have her as part of the organization. She has gotten the word out there, and it has been amazing.”

Flores said she wants to become a teacher after she’s finished with school, and is applying to McDaniel College and Towson University to pursue an education degree. Hannon liked what she heard from Winters Mill’s Student Champion of the Year.

“When it comes to this message, it definitely helps to have the kids spread the message,” Hannon said. “I kind of sit back and just say, ‘Go, my little Falcons.’ And they do. The things that they are getting done in school has been amazing. I couldn’t be more proud.”

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