New center provides support for STEM School community

STEM Center for Strength opens virtually amid COVID-19 pandemic

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Suzi McKay wishes she could have known in 2013 what she knows now.

That year, her daughter was a 15-year-old sophomore at Arapahoe High School in Centennial when a shooting rocked the community. In the years since, she’s learned more about helping her daughter handle stress and anxiety “in a more purposeful way,” and how to self-advocate.

It’s a skillset she better developed over time and needed when the incident happened, she said. But one of the most important lessons she learned is that no two tragedies are the same.

She does not know firsthand what the past year was like for the STEM School Highlands Ranch community, but her experience with Arapahoe High School gives her a little insight, McKay said. She hopes to use it to give back as she works at a new resiliency center opened to support STEM.

“Having been part of a community that’s been through an act of school violence and being the parent of a child that has been affected, I know that the event never goes away,” she said.

The new center is virtually open to provide mental health support for anyone affected by the tragedy at STEM School Highlands Ranch last year. STEM Center for Strength, at 640 Plaza Drive, Highlands Ranch, will open to in-person services as soon as is safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic pushed back its in-person opening date, which was supposed to be in March, forcing the center to operate virtually. McKay is the center’s activity coordinator.

The center also has planned a variety of services that will be virtually available on May 7, the one-year mark of the shooting that injured eight STEM students and left 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo dead.

“Knowing that you’re not alone, that you have a community of people you can connect with,” Cynthia Grant, chief clinical officer at AllHealth Network said, “even if it’s an online community, is I think really helpful and healing.”

The services are free to the public and available to anyone affected by the May 7 incident. That could be a first responder, school employee, student, alumni, parent or other community member. More information is available at stemcenterforstrength.com.

STEM student Logan Cooper came up with the center’s name, which was voted on by the school. Student Grace Triplett designed the center’s logo.

The facility is operated by AllHealth Network, which handled the behavioral health disaster response when the STEM School incident occurred and continues to provide disaster recovery with a network of stakeholders. Everything is grant funded through August 2022, Grant said.

Grant said without resiliency centers, informal support groups often form among survivors of mass violence and victims individually sift through an ocean of resources or information about recovery.

“Without having a place to go, each individual deals with their own grief and trauma in their own setting,” she said. “But it doesn’t bring together sort of the shared experience that people have until you have a place with a clear purpose.”

Resiliency centers provide a centralized location for mental health support, she said. The staff have clinical expertise and vet resources about trauma and recovery before providing it to survivors, “so that people aren’t going to try and find this on their own.”

Grant said as the one-year mark draws near, people may experience intrusive thoughts or memories. Anxiety and stress may increase and struggling to sleep is common.

“That’s very normal,” she said. “We really want people to know that what they’re experiencing is normal.”

Grant encouraged people to avoid bottling feelings up. People can use humor to talk through issues, she said. Focus on sleep. STEM Center for Strength has tips online for meditation and breathing techniques. There is yoga instruction for anxiety attacks and a video on coping skills.

Resources on the center’s website vary based on age group and a person’s connection to the school, such as whether he or she is a student, staff member or parent.

One of the most important ways for survivors to stay well is to know what crisis resources are available, Grant said.

Hannah Reese, the recovery coordinator for STEM School Highlands Ranch, oversees recovery within the school and worked closely with AllHealth in setting the center up.

She hopes the center will be a place where students can connect, de-stress and make new friends. Having a place to bring everyone involved together is an ideal situation, she said. From a survey sent to the STEM community, Reese said there was one universal request people agreed on: therapy dogs. The center will be sure to bring those in, she said.

The center is located next to the school, within walking distance for students.

“Having that location for healing is wonderful and honestly any time students can connect with each other and relax is wonderful,” Reese said.

McKay is Reese’s counterpart within the center. The center worked closely with the school in developing its operations, she said, and she was glad students were behind its logo and name.

“We want the kids not only to tap their talents,” she said, “but also that gives them more ownership of the space.”

McKay said the center has four support groups right now and is starting up a fifth for alumni.

Their biggest challenge in opening the center has been reaching community members who moved on after the shooting, like students or teachers who left for other schools. She hopes word of mouth can help them reach everyone who may need the center’s resources.

While the mission is to ensure people have mental health support if they need it, the center is also meant to be a gathering place for people to spend time, socialize and unwind.

“It’s not only about the availability of the clinicians and support services,” she said.

Grant wanted the community to know “we all remember what happened.”

“It has changed the community, and yet we have seen incredible strength and recovery that have come from people,” Grant said. “We can continue to heal from it and support one another.”

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