Kari Vernon left the security of a steady income and her passion for her decade-long career as a middle school teacher to launch the Family Mentor Foundation in 2013. Over the years, she witnessed the countless struggles children faced in their daily lives that created seemingly insurmountable obstacles to learning and developing to their fullest potentials.
“I remember a teacher sharing with me that she saw a young student stuffing the cheese from his pizza into his pocket on a Friday afternoon,” said Vernon, executive director of the Family Mentor Foundation, “And when she asked him what he was doing, he responded that he was afraid he wasn’t going to have enough to eat over the weekend and needed to save up. You can imagine how this degree of hunger and worry can severely impact learning. And I can tell you it does; as a teacher, I saw it every day.”
Driven by this sense of urgency, Kari framed the mission of the Family Mentor Foundation to create services and partnerships that help fill in these gaps to meet the unmet needs of children in Central Ohio communities through a variety of programs and resources. Her first goal for the organization was to establish a program that met the nutritional needs of children.
While schools often provide breakfast and lunch for children, there was a gap over the weekend. The Family Mentor Foundation established its Buddy Box program, a cardboard box that contains two breakfasts, two lunches, a snack, and a small jar of peanut butter, to get these kids through the weekends. During the 2017–2018 academic year, Family Mentor Foundation provided 17,880 Buddy Boxes to children in schools throughout Central Ohio.
Beyond nutrition, unmet emotional needs are impacting children’s development.
Year after year, Vernon observed that the classroom was often the only environment that students had access to that offered even a chance of getting their emotional needs met. They had no other alternatives. She recalls one seventh grade student who spent her weekends in her room, constantly grounded at the whim of an alcoholic father. Vernon met with her after school to help her process her emotions. Another 14-year old student, José, displayed disruptive behavior in her classroom. José was in trouble with the law, because he belonged to a gang. For José, showing any sign of emotion was an open invitation for brutal ridicule.
“If a child can’t make sense of his or her environment through the simple act of labeling their feelings,” said Vernon “They create a story about what’s wrong with them. Not only did I observe this as an educator, I experienced it first hand with my own kids. They struggled with emotional and social issues at school. After working all day, as I listened to them and tried to help them to navigate these tough situations, I often walked away feeling depleted, discouraged, and even helpless at times in terms of being able to meet their emotional needs.”
Scientific discoveries indicate that there are many parts of the brain involved with processing our emotions. The central component in the brain is the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for the brain’s response to the sympathetic nervous system, stimulating the fight or flight response. When the brain enters a fight or flight state for long periods of time, individuals experience high levels of anxiety, emotional reactivity, and depression.
“The good news is that the brain is not fixed in its responses. It can be rewired,” said Vernon. “By combining my professional and personal experiences, I’ve developed a new social enterprise concept that the Family Mentor Foundation has recently launched, called Making Emotions Easy Box (Mee Box).”
Mee Box incorporates tools and resources to help teach social and emotional concepts. Many of the tools and exercises were created from therapy techniques including meditation, self-awareness, and cognitive restructuring. The box also includes a voice recorder to help participants create an audio archive that contains personal messages to help them weather life’s challenges and overcome self-hate. When used regularly, this tool functions to create new neural pathways in the brain that override the amygdala’s fight or flight response.
“Unmet emotional needs are prevalent in children spanning all socio-economic circumstances,” said Vernon. “Our Mee Box can be used one-on-one with an engaged parent or mentor, or with a small group of children in an educational setting and led by a trained Mee Box Mentor.”
Over the next year, Family Mentor Foundation will pilot 10 classes to further refine the concept and overall strategy. While her current thinking in terms of the social impact component leverages a buy-one-give-one model, identifying those who have the capacity to pay and need the program needs to be further explored. The nonprofit is currently working through existing school partnerships to pilot the program.
“We are a nonprofit, we can, to the extent that we can, continue to demonstrate that this has positive results for the students, and positive outcomes in terms of improving the learning environment,” said Vernon. “We are looking to communicate this new program to individuals who want to be socially responsible and want to do double duty with their purchases, but our ultimate end goal in terms of social impact is to do as much of this for people who can benefit from it.”
How you can help Family Mentor Foundation’s emerging Mee Box social enterprise concept:
- Help spread the word. Follow Family Mentor Foundation on social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram).
- Volunteer to become a certified Mee Box Mentor by sending an email to Kari.
- Volunteer to help stuff boxes of food for the Buddy Box program, to free up resources that can be diverted to expanding the Mee Box program. Join the Family Mentor Foundation on September 9, for an event to stuff 6,000 boxes at Polaris Mall at 1:00 p.m.
- Make a donation to Family Mentor Foundation to help fund the organization’s pilot program.
For more information, visit familymentorfoundation.org.
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