The Valley News has been selected to add two journalists — a photojournalist and a climate and environment reporter — to our newsroom through Report for America, a national service program that boosts local news by harnessing community support.

Please consider donating to this effort.

West Fairlee youth retreat puts emphasis on mental health

  • Brynn Locke, 17, of Lisbon, N.H., creates a magazine cover about herself at the The Upper Valley Youth Wellness Retreat in West Fairlee, Vt., on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. Coaches help campers find empowerment through art. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley news photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Amir Colby, 10, of Fairlee, Vt., top, Matthew Andrasko, 10, of Thetford, Vt., and Baylan Ploss, 8, of Newport, N.H., take part in a yoga nidra session at the Upper Valley Youth Wellness Retreat in West Fairlee, Vt., on Wednesday, July, 14, 2021. While practicing yoga nidra, a person becomes systematically and increasingly aware of the inner world by following a set of verbal instructions. The retreat run by We R H.O.P.E. helps kids to learn coping skills and how to manage their anxiety. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

  • Emma Cushman, 13, of West Fairlee, Vt. feeds Jayde Colby, 13, of Fairlee, Vt., a cookie during a snack break at the The Upper Valley Youth Wellness Retreat in West Fairlee, Vt., on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. Sitting with them is Branwen Wilbur, 12, of Hartland, Vt., left, and Lillie Kelley, 12, of Bradford, Vt. Participants of the three week retreat focus on youth wellness and mental health. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • We R H.O.P.E. co-founder and President Sean Perry leads a group of campers on a hike at the Upper Valley Youth Wellness Retreat in West Fairlee, Vt., on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. The three-week retreat focuses on youth wellness and mental health. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

  • At the Upper Valley Youth Wellness Retreat, Ryan Dabrowski, 12, of Sunapee, N.H. pets one of the horses at Open Acres Ranch in West Fairlee, Vt. Participants work with horses throughout the day. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Harper Miller, 8, of Hartland, Vt., left, and Natalie Thurston, 7, of Orford, N.H., play with devil sticks at the Upper Valley Youth Wellness Retreat in West Fairlee, Vt., on July 14, 2021. We R H.O.P.E. is running the retreat focusing on youth wellness and mental health. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

  • Ruben Pogue, 9, of Hartford, Vt., left, Charlotte Saldi, 8, of West Topsham, Vt., and Kaliyah Hartley, 8, of East Corinth, Vt., freeze after one part of their body shows a specific emotion. We R H.O.P.E. co-founder James Reinstein speaks with campers about working through anxiety at the Upper Valley Youth Wellness Retreat in West Fairlee, Vt., on Wednesday, July, 14, 2021. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/24/2021 9:40:47 PM
Modified: 7/24/2021 9:41:01 PM

Amid the cellphone-unfriendly green hills and pastures surrounding the Milldale Farm Center for Wellness, a group of about 10 high schoolers gathered earlier this month under a tent to show off newfound circus skills, such as flips and tricks with hula hoops.

Brynn Locke, a 17-year-old from Lisbon, N.H., who wore a pride flag as a cape, as well as dark face paint, made some colorful scarves dance through the air.

“I can be who I am because of everybody here,” she said.

From her seat among the other teenagers on the grass nearby, Autumn Siegler, a coach for the Chester, Vt.-based We R Hope youth anxiety coaching organization, asked Locke, “How did that feel? Did it feel empowering?”

Locke answered in the affirmative.

In an interview, Locke said it was worth the hour-and-20-minute trip to attend the Upper Valley Youth Wellness Retreat in West Fairlee because she felt accepted. The retreat, which We R Hope held during the first three weeks of this month, offered some typical summer camp activities such as swimming, hiking and horseback riding, but with an eye toward helping the roughly 60 participants develop ways to manage anxiety and build relationships.

Each week of the retreat had a theme: connect, empower and revitalize.

In another exercise, the campers wrote and drew a storyboard about themselves, including positive affirmations. And they all took anxiety education and emotional CPR classes.

In one such class, Caleb Perry, an 11-year-old from Chester, said he learned “how to get over my anxiety.”

His father, Sean Perry, We R Hope’s co-founder and president, instructed campers in how to replace negative thoughts with positive ones.

“I feel like I will use it in the future,” Caleb said.

Much has been made of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young people’s mental health, but there was evidence that the kids will be all right at the Milldale Farm Center.

“All kids have anxiety,” Sean Perry said. “That’s really our focus. It’s to teach kids how to work through that. If you can’t work through your fears, then you’re stuck.”

Meeting a mental health need

This is the second summer the retreat has happened. The first year, 2018, just 12 children, including two of Perry’s own, attended, he said.

“Without a doubt, I think it reflects the need for mental health support,” Perry said of the retreat’s increased popularity this year.

The retreat’s price point, $25 per day operating four days a week, also helped to attract children and their families, he said. The organization held a motorcycle ride to raise money earlier this summer to keep the cost to families down. In the future, Perry plans to expand We R Hope’s youth mental health retreat to other states, he said.

Demand for mental health support for children was growing even before the pandemic, but it has spiked as young people faced unprecedented changes to their academic and social routines.

This year’s youth retreat came during the pandemic recovery with vaccination rates in much of the Upper Valley relatively high and schools slated to reopen for a more typical school year this fall.

Still, for many, the tail end of the pandemic includes residual anxiety and stress from a year of trauma and isolation, leaving room for Perry’s group to expand.

“Our organization is thriving,” Perry said. “We are constantly growing.”

We R Hope, a nonprofit that provides coaching in schools in the Twin States, plans to further assist children through a residential treatment center, for which they’re seeking funding, as well as a location somewhere in the Upper Valley.

One of We R Hope’s goals, as with keeping the price point low to attend the retreat, is to make the planned residential program accessible to young adults from lower- as well as higher-income backgrounds, Perry said. The plan would be to have tuition from wealthier students help to subsidize local students who could benefit from the 10-month program. It would be aimed at helping young people deal with anxiety, depression and trauma, he said.

The organization uses techniques associated with cognitive behavioral therapy but employs coaches instead of therapists, which Perry said allows them to meet with people more frequently.

“It’s more like mentoring and coaching,” said David Baker, superintendent of Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union. “They’ll take a child before they are into complete crisis and meltdown, (and) they’ll work with them.”

After six to eight weeks, We R Hope coaches determine that the student has developed the skills they need or they’ll recommend further services, he said.

We R Hope has had a presence in Windsor Southeast schools since 2018, supported by federal funding, and Baker said he expects that will continue.

“I certainly feel good about what they’ve done with us,” he said.

Opening up

Rebecca Guillette, who operates Open Acre Ranch across the road from Milldale Farm Center, has run horseback riding programs for children in conjunction with Listen Community Center in the past. She said that this summer she could tell the children at the retreat were “way more withdrawn,” which she attributed to the challenges of weathering the pandemic.

“It’s been so hard for all of them,” she said.

But over the course of the retreat, the children have started having fun, joking and giving high-fives, Guillette said.

It’s “nice to watch them come back,” she said.

The horses were a favorite among many of the children. Working with the animals can help people learn to understand how the emotions they’re experiencing affect others, Perry said.

“The animal is really connecting with what you’re experiencing in the moment,” he said.

That can help kids to understand when they might need to take a deep breath to relax, for example, he said.

Coping skills

The message that horses “feed off your emotions” had come through to 13-year-old Jayde Colby, of Fairlee, who held a lunchbox on her lap during snack time under a tent.

Before the retreat, Colby said her “anxiety was high.” But being around horses and other people had helped her feel better and build coping mechanisms for the future, she said.

Those skills have already come in handy in at least one Upper Valley household.

Following the third day Hartland 8-year-old Harper Miller attended the retreat this month, her mother Cassandra Hamel asked Harper to clean up her room, a request that once would have led to a conflict.

But this time, Harper didn’t yell. Instead, she got quiet and sat on her bed, according to Hamel.

“I’m just taking a couple minutes because I’m feeling really frustrated,” Harper told her mother, apparently putting to use her new skills managing her emotions.

Harper then explained that the problem was that she didn’t want to clean her whole room. Hamel told her daughter what she really wanted was for her to pick up the dirty laundry.

“We both ended up getting what we wanted,” Hamel said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784
603-298-8711

 

© 2021 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy