NORTON, Ohio — As kids return to the classroom, the Norton School District is making sure its students are prepared mentally, all thanks to the idea of five bright minds.
Now-ninth graders Chloe Womble, Jaylen Haarlammert, Aureila Lanter, Emily King and Emma Fortner watched their idea grow into a whole garden of sorts, with the grand opening of their "Pathway to Peace" just a few weeks ago.
"So we decided at first, we wanted to do a homeless shelter, but then we thought, mental health because we all know someone that has been affected by it," explains Womble.
The idea came to the girls while in sixth grade. Fast forward to this summer, much of the school district and community pitched in to create the half-mile-long path at Columbia Woods Park.
"You go to a bench and there's a QR code. You put your phone up to it and you take yourself into a mindfulness exercise. You go to the flower garden and you can sit at the table with a friend and just hear the birds chirp, and the flowers around, the pond around, it's a peaceful place," middle school counselor Jessica Russo says about the path.
It's just one component of Norton Schools' unique approach to tackling the mental well-being of its students and staff.
"We have created a zen den, which is the size of a classroom, and there are so many things in the Zen Den. Calming strategies, we have a massage chair, and we have an ocean room. There are little rooms inside the Zen Den," Russo says.
She explains that a grant from the GAR Foundation allowed them to create the path, Zen Den, and eventually add a zen mindfulness area and garden for the teachers.
"Every grant that comes to us, or application must have social and emotional pieces for both students and teachers, because we saw through the pandemic, just how this affected these kids, especially at the middle school," says Lucille Esposito, the GAR's grant program manager.
Last year, Norton also added psychologists in each of its four buildings, as well as additional mental health counselors through a partnership with Red Oak Behavioral Health. These are critical resources as new data from the CDC reports that 37% of students reported poor mental health, and 44% felt sad or hopeless last school year.
The district hopes a walk down the path with a friend, or a moment alone in the Zen Den, are small seeds that will lead to more growth in the name of mental health.
"Yesterday I walked in, I see my staff on the massage chair, in the Zen Den, and I'm like- this is it. This is what this is all about," Russo smiles.
Wombley admits that this idea, once a dream, is pretty incredible to see in reality.
"I thought maybe this was just an idea, but a lot of people have helped us and it's definitely gone somewhere. So if other schools want to try this, or try something new, go for it, enjoy it."
Other districts in Summit County can apply for this grant, as well. The specific grant is called the Educator Initiative Grant (EIG).
The GAR Foundation offers the grants once per year to individual classroom teachers or teams of K-12 educators in public, private, parochial or not-for-profit charter schools.
Individual classrooms are eligible for up to $5,000, and teaching teams of two or more classrooms can get up to $10,000.
The application period for 2022 has closed, but details for the 2023 application period will be out this fall. To learn more about the application process, click here.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The video above previously aired on 3News on May 26, 2021.