During an invite-only celebration at Mt. Sentinel last week, the grad class of 2016 pledged to raise funds to support those struggling with mental health issues. The announcement came only days after a classmate was arrested for making threats.
“As a grad class we have decided to make a donation towards mental health. Mount Sentinel school along with many other organizations have decided to match our donation,” valedictorian Raya Mikkelson told the Star. She made the announcement with her co-valedictorian Kyle Chernenkoff.
“Mental health is extremely important. We want our community to realize that our situation has not made us weak, but it has made us strong. Our grad class is like a family and our little family will heal from this together.”
Superintendent Jeff Jones was effusive about the announcement.
“It’s very powerful to hear the youth of our community speaking with such compassion and with commitment to their peers and the people with whom they’ve grown up with.”
He said the funds will go a long way.
“These students are recognizing there’s a pervasive challenge in our world we need to address.”
Students demonstrate compassion
SD8’s district psychologist Todd Kettner found out about the grad’s announcement during a teleconference meeting with the threat assessment team last week. Police officers, national experts and district staff were all on the call when Principal Glen Campbell informed them of the students’ plans.
“There was this pregnant silence after they told us this is what the grads have decided, and then one of the national experts on the call said ‘that’s the most amazing thing in my whole career I’ve ever heard from a situation like this’ and indeed it was.”
Kettner said he felt “verklempt”—a word that means “overcome with emotion”.
“Of all the reactions you could choose and all the ways a collective group of youth could deal with having their grad plans cancelled…they could have been angry, but instead they found compassion and empathy.”
Kettner hopes this will bring a greater awareness of the challenges those with mental illness face. For instance, he pointed out they’re statistically more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of violence.
He noted that Canada is the last of the G8 countries to adopt a mental health strategy, but he sees a “tide change coming in Canada” that will address “the disjointed approach” our community currently employs.
“If this situation is a cry for help, these students are asking ‘who else is crying for help?’ This will help in a symbolic and powerful way.”
Finding positive closure
Jones felt it was crucial that Mount Sentinel’s postponed grad ceremony go forward as soon as possible, even though the situation necessitated thorough baggage checks and a visible RCMP presence.
He told the Star it was like “trying to plan a wedding in two days.”
“Sometimes relying on a traditional ceremony to bring a community together after a traumatic event is very necessary to move forward, and in this case it was the graduation that bought us together,” he said.
But making it through the week was no small feat, according to Kettner.
“It was a busy five or six days leading up to grad for all of us, but you dig in and you do what you need to do. You run on adrenaline. Beyond the safety thing the very second priority for us was to try and find a way to bring positive closure to the situation.”
And that’s what they accomplished on Thursday, he believes. The multi-hour ceremony brought the community together for what Jones called “a severely normal” experience.
“I wasn’t the slightest bit nervous being there, which is kudos to all our community partners,” said Kettner. “I remember standing at the back of the gym listening to what was going on and with all the speeches I was pleased with the sense of normalcy. If someone had walked in off the street I think they would’ve figured it was just a normal grad.”
“I wasn’t sure what tone the grad was going to take, but I knew it was really important that it occur for the community to be able to move forward.”
Jones has “an overwhelming sense of gratitude that things worked out the way they did”—a sentiment he shared with the students and parents during the ceremony.
“A more tragic event was averted and that’s what I was speaking about in my speech when I said I’m going to be grateful until the day I die that we all were able to be there that day.”