When the students of Winters Mill High School were separated by the coronavirus-related school closures, Diana Flores and her peers in the student organization Falcons of Strength used social media to reach out and help them cope with issues like loneliness and anxiety.
The rising Winters Mill senior was recognized by the Children’s Mental Health Matters! Campaign as its 2020 Student Champion of the Year.
Flores is an executive board member 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.
After schools closed to students March 13 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the group turned to social media to connect with their peers while they were separated.
At first, “We weren’t really big on social media,” she said. “I mean, we obviously did a few little things, but we didn’t really start until school ended. And we were like, ‘Oh, wow, we’re not going to go back. We should probably find a way to connect again.‘”
Taking inspiration from the larger Sources of Strength accounts, Flores started crafting social distancing challenges that are personalized to the Winters Mill community. They suggested emotional outlets that are easy to do without buying a lot of supplies or leaving the house. Some included sending messages of support to people living in assisted living facilities and outside activities to get fresh air.
By “putting a little spin on it, make it our own and asking questions,” the accounts got her peers to respond with messages and pictures about how they completed the challenges, she said.
The social media pages are also a place to share resources, hotlines and information on how to connect with help in the local community.
Flores said she was surprised to receive the Student Champion award. When she applied, she just hoped to shine a light on Falcons of Strength and how the group works together, she said.
Counselor Melisa Hannon is the advisor for Falcons of strength. In a news release from Carroll County Public Schools, she said, “Diana is always coming up with ideas and strategies on her own to get our message out. She spends tons of hours on her own to do this. She is a very committed young lady.”
Before schools closed to in-person learning, Flores said the group’s campaigns inspired her and made her want to continue to be a part of the “Falcon family.”
In one mentor campaign, students wrote messages to teachers thanking them and placed them on the teacher’s classroom door. Later they collected them into a display near the media center.
In another campaign, students wrote positive messages like ”Keep going,” or “You’ve got this” on notes and placed them on random lockers.
“So the entire hallway was just filled with these positive notes,” Flores said. “You don’t even know who you were giving the notes to, but it’s just these happy little notes making someone’s day.”
This summer, Falcons of Strength reached out to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Maryland and Delaware director. The director responded with a list of resources and handouts, including information on trainings for teenagers, or parents, or those responding to mental health difficulties during COVID-19, Flores said. She reached out to the school’s principal to see what might be possible for the school to take part in in the future.
The campaign “brings together non-profits, 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,” according to their mission statement.