Fostering Youth Confidence With Mental Health Support
Leading his nonprofit organization ForeverU, Ryan Hesslau applies the same combination of hope and hard work that he dedicates to the young people he serves there.
ForeverU is a New Lenox based 501c3 nonprofit whose mission is to improve the lives of young people by empowering them to address mental health challenges. They work with pre-teens and teens in seventh through 12th grades referred through local private practices and partners.
Hesslau said young people fighting mental illness put “huge limitations on themselves,” and also feel constrained by how their parents, friends and other influencers view them and their capabilities.
“Many students we serve are challenged by a mental health condition or challenges like depression, stress, anxiety, self-harm, even up to suicidal ideation,” said Hesslau, ForeverU’s executive director.
“Many of those students are so heavily focused and dwelling on their current circumstances and the pain that’s there. We try to help them take a step back and think differently about where they can go. Our goal is to give them something to aim for.”
Approaching its 10 year anniversary, Hesslau started ForeverU in 2012 when he was 16 years old. Over the last decade — and especially during 2020 — the organization worked through several iterations of programming to determine how to most effectively connect with young people.
Hesslau said the 15-member board of directors collaborated to develop a three-part program that the organization is now piloting with a small group of students.
“The three-part program, which we developed this past year, sends students through a journey of self-discovery,” Hesslau said. “What’s great is that it’s a program model that can be tailored to any child’s life story. No matter what your background is, you can learn from this program.”
ForeverU officially describes it this way: “The three-part program model we have designed exists to present those we serve with hope, strength, and a sense of belonging as they learn how to establish a meaningful life path for themselves and their future.”
Part 1 of the program is a two-day workshop called Arise, which Hesslau said focuses on helping students determine their goals and acquire tools to develop a roadmap for their life path. During the workshops, trained mentors encourage the students to widen their perspective on the life options available to them and think strategically about how they could be achieved.
Part 2, called Ascend, gives students a support system to put their plan into action through a six-month mentoring program. Students are paired with a young trained mentor who offers one-on-one support. They also meet with a peer group to communicate their progress and get support for their struggles and reinforcement of areas where they’re thriving.
“They learn more cool tools to help support their roadmap as well,” Hesslau said. “At the end of the six months, students who complete Part 2 have the opportunity to be a peer mentor. We reassign you a mentor and a peer group, and you become a co-pilot with that mentor. It gives you a continued part to play in ForeverU.”
Part 3 of the program is a four night, five day camp experience called Camp Apex. It serves as an opportunity to “reset” into healthier ways of living. During the camp, students dive deeper into their own story, and grow the friendships they established throughout the program.
ForeverU’s three-part engagement model was developed by a committee of professionals working under the purview of the board of directors.
“Working on our programming is all mental health clinicians. They’ve recreated our entire program model from scratch,” Hesslau said. “We have professionals vetting everything we do.”
To learn more about ForeverU, visit: https://www.joinforeveru.org/
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