Jefferson County Nonprofit Helps Teens Gain Resilience Skills

by Joan Rutkowski, The Benji Project

A small group of middle schoolers are scattered around a grassy area of Fort Townsend State Park. Some are sitting, some are standing. Cell phones are out of sight and eyes are closed.

Guided by an instructor’s voice, the youth focus on the soles of their feet. As their nervous energy and giggles fade, they are invited to notice with curiosity the different sensations in their soles. They shift their weight gently back and forth, left to right. There is temperature to notice, perhaps some tingling. Their contact with the earth becomes more prominent to them. A sense of calm develops.

The middle schoolers are participants in one of The Benji Project’s Summer Camp programs. They are learning that bringing mindful attention to the sensations of their feet is one way to anchor themselves during moments of stress.

Exploring Senses & Postures

They experience how pausing and connecting with the physical world, rather than the rushing mind, can reduce stress-based reactivity. Self-kindness and constructive responses to challenges become more possible.

The activity is among many youth-friendly experiences in mindful self-compassion that The Benji Project teaches to Jefferson County youth through school and community programs.

A path forward

The Benji Project launched in late 2017 with the following mission: “We teach proven mindfulness and self-compassion tools to young people and their families and communities. Through classes, workshops, and camps, we build capacity for stress management and emotional resilience.”

Port Townsend resident Cynthia Osterman started the nonprofit after her son Benji died by suicide in 2015 at the age of 15. The idea for the organization came to her as she grieved and struggled to understand what happened.

Benji had never shared with her whether he was depressed. She knew that his emotional sensitivity contributed to many talents; she believes it also made it difficult to navigate adolescent turmoil.

“The conclusion I drew was that Benji did not ask for help because he could not. He had built up self-protective walls that were reinforced by a culture that frowns on weakness and is obsessed with perfection,” Osterman reflected.

A long-time meditator, Osterman saw the line from self-acceptance and self-compassion to navigating stress and asking for help. “It became clear to me that the path to less suffering and greater well-being for adolescents, and for all of us, was through greater self acceptance,” she said.

Osterman learned of work that prominent researchers Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer had done on mindful self-compassion. Their program was adapted into a teen-specific curriculum by Karen Bluth of University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and Lorraine Hobbs of University of California San Diego. Osterman studied the program, consulted with Hobbs and Bluth, and developed a plan to bring the curriculum to Jefferson County.

Upstream support for all

The Benji Project is sponsored by StrongerTowns, a local nonprofit that helps incubate organizations working to strengthen rural communities. Osterman and her team focus on serving Jefferson County youth in the 11-19 age range and their families. In its first five years, The Benji Project has reached more than 1,000 young people.

The nonprofit seeks to share mindful self-compassion skills in settings that reach a wide range of youth. Relationships with area school districts are essential for this proactive approach. When invited into classrooms, The Benji Project’s instructors typically work with students once a week for eight weeks.

The research-based curriculum can be as lively as it is introspective. Through a variety of social, creative, physical, and reflective activities, youth explore mindfulness and self-compassion skills that can help them navigate life’s challenges. One favorite hands-on activity uses oobleck, the gooey mixture of cornstarch and water, as a metaphor for how we might approach strong emotions. What happens if we allow our emotions to be there, holding them gently, instead of trying to ball them up and suppress them?

Program Director Heather McRae-Woolf says, “We share with young people that the emotions of adolescence are naturally intense and messy. The challenge becomes how to be kind to yourself in the midst of the messiness. As parents or community members who care for young people, we can practice holding compassionate space for this phase of development – which is not always easy!”

Tools for life

Mindfulness and self-compassion can sound like simplistic strategies. But a body of research has developed to demonstrate their impact on stress, anxiety, and depression. Now the skills are part of mainstream mental health approaches.

Mindfulness is the cognitive skill of turning towards difficult thoughts and feelings with openness and curiosity – an essential first step in reducing reactivity and feelings of being overwhelmed. Self-compassion involves responding to difficult thoughts and feelings with kindness and understanding.

Research has shown that self-compassion enhances well-being and calms the nervous system. Unlike self-criticism, which can be more self-defeating than motivating, self-compassion can put people in a positive mental space for weathering adversity with resilience.

The Benji Project seeks to share these tools with youth before they reach a point of crisis. As one teen shared following a workshop series: “If someone says something hurtful to me, I feel like I know enough now to be able to deal with it a lot better. I could defuse whatever anger or sadness arose in me and take care of it in a positive way instead of taking it out on myself for a long period of time.”

Deepening support for greater challenges

It’s an extraordinarily difficult time for a young person trying to navigate their way to adulthood. In December 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a public health advisory about a youth mental health crisis. The advisory notes alarming increases over the last 10+ years in the prevalence of depression, anxiety, and suicidality among young people.

These struggles have been showing up in state surveys over the years, and Jefferson County teens generally report higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation than their peers statewide. Meanwhile, the pandemic has complicated an already challenging developmental phase. Following the return to classrooms this past year, a greater number of students appeared to struggle with managing difficult emotions and relating positively to others.

Moving statue,
dramatizes experiences.

During this critical time, The Benji Project has expanded from Port Townsend into south county. Donations and grants are supporting the expansion, and the school programs are free to students. One initiative involved a series with middle schoolers in Brinnon’s after-school 4-H program. The youth learned ways to manage stress and practice self-compassion and explored how those skills contribute to leadership.

The nonprofit also expanded this year’s Summer Camp program with the addition of a camp for LGBTQ+ teens. The camp is part of The Benji Project’s effort to create spaces where youth can be vulnerable, which includes opportunities to be with peers who self-identify in similar ways.

Now, as a new school year begins, The Benji Project is ready to return to classrooms. The organization also is exploring ways to deepen support to youth and their families through options outside of the classroom that can be more ongoing.

The need is there. As one teen has shared upon reflecting on her experience with the pandemic, “Mental health is the most important thing that we should learn how to manage throughout all of our education.”

More Info

To learn more about The Benji Project, please visit thebenjiproject.org