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A week of empowerment and inclusivity at Denair Unified
Denair Empowerment week 1
Denair High School staff and students celebrate Disability Awareness Week by hosting several lunchtime activities aimed at encouraging inclusivity (Photo courtsy of DUSD).

The topic of inclusivity and student well-being was at the forefront of campus operations this week at Denair Unified School District. On Monday, the high school and junior high school saw the day devoted to student mental health. Meanwhile, the week also marked Disability Awareness Week, which saw students participate in activities aimed at eliminating stigmas and barriers.

Monday’s first-ever Mental Health Day at Denair Unified meant no academic classes on the campuses of Denair High, Denair Middle and Denair Charter Academy. Instead, there was a wide-ranging program that featured a keynote speaker, breakout sessions where students learned creative ways to cope with mental health issues, and a campuswide barbecue lunch.

DUSD Superintendent Terry Metzger was a key voice in making a mental health day a reality. The main goals were to help students realize that they are not alone in whatever they may be experiencing and there are others standing by ready to help. All they have to do is ask.

“The stigma [surrounding mental health] is still alive and well – if you’re struggling mentally, there’s something wrong with you. And nothing could be further from the truth,” said Metzger.

Monday’s guest speaker was Dr. Julia Garcia, who spoke openly about growing up in Arizona with a mother with addiction issues, a father who spent time in jail and she herself dealing with anger and depression. With all going on at home, she then suffered a knee injury that put a scholarship to play college soccer at risk.

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Dr. Julia Garcia served as the keynote speaker for Denair Unified’s first ever student Mental Health Day on Monday, urging students to speak out and seek help when dealing with emotions (Photo courtesy of DUSD).

“I was so angry. And when I got hurt, I didn’t have sports anymore,” she told students. “So, I partied. I didn’t want to feel anything. I got suspended. I almost lost my scholarship that I worked my whole life to get.”

Garcia suggested that “real strength is dealing honestly with emotions.”

“What happens when you keep it inside? It exploded,” she said. “I almost didn’t survive until the age of 20. It’s a miracle I’m still alive. I was putting myself in life-threatening situations.”

The answer, Garcia explained, was to recognize she needed help – something she encouraged the hundreds of Denair students in the audience to do as well.

“They need to be comfortable reaching out for help,” she said. “That’s the only way to be the real you. That’s how to be a happy, successful adult.”

Similar stigmas surround the disabled community, which is something that Denair High paraprofessional Destiny Silva wants to change.

“The goal for this week was for our school community to see that inclusion is within everyone’s ability. We want everyone to recognize that inclusion is intentional, it is about identifying and removing barriers so that everyone can participate to the best of their ability,” she said. “Inclusion is not bringing people into what already exists, it is making a new space, a better space for everyone.”

Activities that students participated in throughout the week all revolved around some of the challenges that students face on a daily basis.

As some students are nonverbal, one activity was having students put marshmallows in their mouths and try talk to their friends. Another activity revolved around some students having a physical disability, so students had to try walking up the stairs and sitting down as a yard stick was taped to their legs.  Another activity included using fine motor skills to pick up pennies or pencils off the ground with snow gloves on.

“The goal for the activities is to help other students see through the lens of some of their peers on campus that may deal with certain things they have never had to experience,” Silva explained. “It was amazing to see some of the students really have an opportunity to learn about: diversity, collaboration, acceptance, inclusion and friendship.”

Whether it’s someone living with disabilities and the stigmas surrounding them, or someone taking on the challenges of daily life as young adults, Metzger believes the message remains the same.

“Many kids will find a connection to another student that they didn’t even know they had.”