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Good friends, indeed

January 15, 2014

Northern Lights, RBC partner for kids’ mental health

Story by Kerri Robins; photo courtesy Nancy Gauthier

There’s nothing like friends to make you feel better about yourself.

Derek Dykstra and his classThat’s especially true in Fort McMurray where an international program called Friends (Feelings, Relax, I can try, Encourage, Nurture, Dare to be brave, Stay happy) is helping local children prevent mental illness later in life by helping them identify stress, understand it and learn how to deal with it before it becomes a crisis.

Derek Dykstra teaches the Friends program to his Grade 5 class at Greely Road School. Intended for children ages 8 to 10 — and taught in Grade 5 classrooms throughout Fort McMurray — Friends delivers positive mental health messages and strategies to help youngsters build strong self-esteem and coping mechanisms.

“Kids learn to read their own emotions and you can see the wheels turning as they apply the strategies we teach them to their everyday lives,” says Dykstra. “Children with normal levels of worry benefit from the program by developing resilience to emotional stress and learning what are — and how to make — good choices.”

Shana Homeniuk, 10, is learning the value of Friend-ship.

“Friends helped me a lot by teaching me how to turn ‘red’ thoughts into ‘green’ thoughts,” says Shana, referring to the colour red as negative and green as positive.

“It helped me learn about the meaning of my feelings like sadness, or madness, or happiness,” she adds. “I learned that helping people laugh, or doing something special for them helps them share their feelings and feel better.”

Connie Kramer, a psychologist with the Fort McMurray Public School District and co-ordinator of mental health programs, agrees with Dykstra.

“Problem-solving, positive self-expression and building positive relationships are critical and very beneficial sooner than later in life — that’s one of the goals of Friends,” says Kramer. “It’s social networking for 10-year-olds.”

Shana has learned some valuable lessons through the program.

“I also learned how to relax,” she says. “Ways to relax include reading, listening to music and exercising, and with deep breathing.”

The program has been running in schools in Fort McMurray since fall 2011, and is comprised of 10 sessions, one hour a week. Using activities – for example, playing a Jeopardy-like board game – reinforces messages on how to handle feelings of anxiety, depression, fear or worry.

Dykstra has seen real benefits to the program.

“The program teaches kids that they can have some control in tough situations and how to apply the lessons they’ve learned in problem-solving to real-life settings,” says Dykstra.

Friends is made possible by the Northern Lights Health Foundation through a $71,000 donation from the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC).

Susanne Chaffey, Executive Director of the foundation, says she’s pleased with the program and the messages it teaches.

“Thanks to RBC’s generous donation, we are thrilled to be part of this important program,” says Chaffey. “Kids already have so much to deal with, so it’s nice to offer and teach them positive ways to manage their emotions. It’s wonderful to see such huge community support in making important programs like this possible.”

For more information, visit the Northern Lights Health Foundation.