TCAPS Human Resources Executive Director Cindy Berck and Ty Schmidt pose for a portrait outside of the TCAPS Administration Building in Traverse City on Thursday.

TRAVERSE CITY — Traverse City Area Public Schools has kicked off the new year with a new health and wellness initiative.

Rotary Charities awarded its $150,000 Systems Change Accelerator Grant to TCAPS to start a health and wellness initiative focused on healthy eating and nutrition, physical fitness and social-emotional health among students and staff. Ty Schmidt, founder of the social change organization Good Works Lab, will lead the initiative.

The $150,000 is given to the school district upfront and meant to be spent within certain parameters over the course of three years. The first year, the district is expected to spend $75,000, the second year it will spend $50,000 and the third year the last $25,000 of the grant’s dollars.

Dr. Cindy Berck, Executive Director of Human Resources and Labor Relations at TCAPS, wrote the proposal to secure the funding for the health and wellness initiative. One of the main goals of executing this initiative is to make health and wellness a more urgent concern.

“The past few years with the pandemic and now looking at kind of the fallout of that, this idea of shoring up support for staff and students is critical,” Berck said. “So under Ty Schmidt’s leadership and with support of this grant, we’ll be looking at those initiatives that will help, and that we can put in place right away, to help support the staff and students in the buildings.”

A few years ago, she said, TCAPS also received the $5,000 Rotary Charities Seed Grant, which allowed the district to study the state of staff and student wellness resources.

With the Seed Grant, TCAPS gathered a group of community members, including health care workers, social workers and teachers, to look at and analyze the resources that TCAPS has available to staff and students.

The results from that study showed TCAPS administrators that engaging more with parents, focusing on data and communicating community resources to parents and students were vital to improving the health and wellness among students and staff.

Among the many findings from the Seed Grant, TCAPS administrators also found that dedicating a district-wide position to health and wellness would help sustain some of the work being done in the schools around mental and physical health and wellness. This inspired TCAPS to establish that position with Schmidt with the dollars from the Systems Change Accelerator Grant.

“I see it as really a huge opportunity and something I’m grateful for that opportunity: to be able to contribute to this town and to help our teachers and kids,” Schmidt said.

To start off the initiative, Schmidt said he is going on a “listening tour”, talking to teachers and staff throughout TCAPS about what they’ve been seeing and what the situation with health and wellness is in within school walls.

Schmidt said some of the first actions of the initiative will include adding more staff to the school buildings — including social workers, counselors and health care workers — who are able to assist students who are struggling with mental health crises in order to increase access to those resources and alleviate some of the workload from the current staff.

“My job is to … bring some resources where the kids are, and where the kids are is in school,” Schmidt said. “So can we really decrease that barrier to access for them, because they don’t get to pick and choose when they’re having a crisis.”

At the forefront of the initiative, Schmidt said he will also begin establishing parent-led wellness teams in every TCAPS school building. These teams would encourage students into activities and offer them another familiar resource to connect.

Parent participation will also involve better understanding and learning social-emotional skills so they can better support their own children and other kids in the school district.

Part of the initiative will also include connecting with the surrounding community, Schmidt said. Through TCAPS’s health and wellness initiative, he hopes to address some of the social factors, such as poverty and access to health care, that effect staff and students by creating partnerships with organizations in the area that are working to address these underlying factors as well.

“We know that a lot of this wellness doesn’t exist in vacuum ... we can’t do it in isolation,” Schmidt said. “And we know it’s going to take a lot of people working over a long period of time to move the needle.”

For Schmidt, the issue of health and wellness in schools and access to mental health resources for young people is a personal one. He has two sons in TCAPS, and four boys he knew died by suicide in the past two years.

He has seen how difficult the past few years have been for young people, and he wants to be able to help in any way that he can, he said.

“I’m not a professional, but I want to help because I can’t go to another one of these funerals,” Schmidt said. “I think it’s risen to a national level crisis that our young people need help, and I think, the best place to start helping them is in the schools, where they are.”

Berck said TCAPS is grateful for the opportunity to explore and improve the health and wellness of its staff and students through this initiative. The school district will be frequently sharing data and any other results related to the initiative with the TCAPS Board of Education and the District-level wellness committee.

“We want a vibrant learning environment that is healthy for both students and staff,” Berck said. “We know that if the health and wellness of our students and staff is strong that academic success will likely follow.”

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