What do you do when you see a need in your community? If you’re Marissa and Alexis, two rising high school seniors and young library patrons in Athens County, you create the “Helping Hands to Mend Hearts Project,” a new, award-winning teen peer support group.
“We know a lot of people dealing with things like stress and mental health,” Marissa shared during an interview at Wells (Albany) Public Library, where the group has been meeting. “We wanted to create a place where you can be yourself, to show how you’re really feeling in a safe space.” She added that sometimes talking to an adult can be intimidating, and that having people your own age to open up to, and who are usually going through similar things, is also key.
The two articulate and creative teens were already coming to the library to work on online projects. Soon, it became a regular weekly activity, eventually growing into what’s now known as Teen Night. Thursdays during the school year from 4-5:30pm, teens can gather for crafting, games and free snacks. Or, simply to talk through the stresses and trials many young people face. “A couple of times when we’ve met, we just cried, and that’s what we really needed,” Alexis said, recalling one Teen Night gathering after an especially grueling week of required school testing.
Another reason the teens have chosen to host “Helpings Hands…” at Wells is Rachel Everett, children and youth librarian who has become both a mentor and friend. It was Rachel who first read about the Art Gish Peacemaking Fund online and immediately reached out to Marissa and Alexis, encouraging them to apply.
“I knew that this grant was looking to empower community members to do the work that they do, and these two immediately came to mind,” she said, adding that it’s been rewarding to see Marissa and Alexis receive recognition.
In fact, the two are the very first teens to both apply for and be awarded a grant from the Art Gish Peacemaking Fund, now in its fifth year. While deciding this year’s grant recipients, Peggy Gish, an Athens County writer and activist, visited Teen Night with other grant board members to meet with the teens and to get a better sense of what they were working towards. What she found were two young friends who were organizing and serving, which she found impressive.
“This is an award that wants to support people who are just learning how to support their communities,” she said. “When we ask ourselves, ‘What is peace? What is justice?’, it doesn’t always mean something on the other side of the world. There are all kinds of needs in our society that can lead to local conflict—or local community.”
Alexis and Marissa hope that “Helping Hands…” group participants can experience free expression, host art shows, and even conduct fundraisers to help strengthen the local Albany area and beyond. They will use their award to purchase games, art supplies, and refreshments. “Nothing is better than sharing a meal with somebody,” Alexis said, smiling, “even if it’s just cheese and crackers.”
“It feels amazing,” Marissa said when asked how it feels to be a grant recipient. “And to not just be helping myself but others, too.”
All teens are welcome at the Helping Hands to Mend Hearts Project meet-ups, and its two founders are already thinking about how they might hold meetings at other county library buildings. They want others to know that everything in their meetings is confidential, and that they are connected to community resources that can offer further support and resources for anyone who needs them. Teens can call the Wells Library at (740) 698-3059.
“It’s a lot easier to think you’re alone,” Alexis admitted. But the major work of Helping Hands is to prove to area teens that they are anything but.
Stay tuned to see what these inspiring teen leaders do next!