‘I Define Me' Wellness Mobile Gives Girls In The St. Louis Region A Safe Space
St. Louis native Tracie Berry-McGhee knew from an early age about the value of having a safe space. Growing up, hers was the library.
“I knew that if I could go into the library, I could make my dreams come true,” Berry-McGhee said. “Because I knew that knowledge was power.”
For nearly two decades, the licensed therapist has been working to empower and give more girls of color a safe space through the I Define Me Movement, which she founded in 2002. Oftentimes, Berry-McGhee said, girls are left out and don’t feel like they have a safe space to talk about the challenges they face.
“We have a large amount of resources in the community for women, for our men, but who focuses specifically on girls?” Berry-McGhee said.
This year, she decided to create the I Define Me Wellness Mobile to reach more girls where they are. It launched in October on the International Day of the Girl. The delivery truck-size Wellness Mobile has been even more critical during the pandemic, giving girls a message of empowerment and self-love in a dark time.
Every detail of this purple clubhouse on wheels is intentional. On the exterior, there are giant painted sunflowers that represent sowing seeds into the community and vibrant images of girls of color on the side.
“We're really pushing the value of seeing your worth, and knowing that you can create something positive that goes out into the community,” Berry-McGhee said.
The mobile’s inside is decked out with built-in benches, pictures of Black girls along the wall and decorative pillows. Tucked away in the corner is a selfie stand and a full-length mirror with positive affirmations written on it.
“When they come on to the mobile, they get to take a selfie and upload it to say to the world that I define me, not society, and that I will take a pledge not to post anything negative, and making sure that my digital footprint is a positive one,” she said.
Berry-McGhee said her goal is to give girls an outlet to talk about their challenges and trauma, while empowering each other through mentorship, 15-minute wellness check-ins and solo counseling sessions, as well as group virtual and in-person counseling sessions.
“To be able to have a space … that you can literally say, let's talk about these topics and chat one-on-one. If there's a need for a mentor, to connect with them one-on-one. We need to give our kids a space to feel that they still have the option to reach out,” she said.
Every girl who walks into the wellness mobile is given a wellness keeper kit with a journal, body butter and other wellness products made by girls for girls. That includes black-and-white masks created by 11-year-old Legacy Jackson. When the young entrepreneur and her mom pulled up to the mobile, her eyes were immediately drawn to the color.
"I was like ‘OMG that's my favorite color,’” Jackson said. “I want my car to be that color."
And once she got on, Jackson said she felt safe.
“Not in all places you feel like that, especially not near a car or a mobile unless it's with your parents,” Jackson said.
Like many girls her age, she wasn’t always sure of who she could trust. She said having a safe space and “trusted adults” like Berry-McGhee made it easier to open up.
“When you're there with them, with Ms. Tracie and the Wellness Mobile and all the different mentors and counselors, you're like, you can say ‘Oh, I'm having a bad day because of this,’ and they'll help you make your bad day into a good day,” Jackson said.
Jackson’s mom, Kynedra Ogunnaike, knows firsthand how the pandemic is negatively affecting kids due to the isolation. She’s a school counselor with St. Louis Public Schools. She also specializes in suicidal and homicidal counseling. Ogunnaike said the Wellness Mobile gives girls like her daughter a constant during the pandemic.
“They are having the opportunity to still fulfill that void, as well as having other people who they can turn to if they need them, especially if they are having thoughts of suicide or harming themselves," Ogunnaike said.
Prior to the pandemic, kids and teens were already dealing with their own anxieties. However, a chaotic year filled with intense protests and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic only made it worse.
“They're kind of stuck with the people that they live with,” said Dr. Jameca Woody Cooper, a licensed psychologist at Emergence Psychological Services. “And if those people aren't healthy, then that could definitely amplify the situation even more. So how do they cope with trauma? How all teenagers cope with trauma is really they kind of keep it in until they explode.”
Part of the problem Woody Cooper points to is that this latest generation has fewer face-to-face interactions. That’s mainly because of technology. The added weight of the pandemic took away the in-person contact they had.
“They're not having the opportunities to practice those social skills, and also possibly release some of the anxiety that they have just by the hormonal development that comes with being a teenager,” Woody Cooper said.
The data support that. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the coronavirus pandemic is affecting kids. The proportion of mental health-related visits to the emergency room is up from this time last year. From mid-March to October, the proportion of visits increased 24% for children ages 5 to 11 and 31% for those 12 to 17, compared to 2019.
Berry-McGhee said the pandemic has been a grim reminder of the traumas kids are up against.
“We deal with the trauma of not having enough food to eat,” she said, “not having someone to talk to. We also are seeing that some of the sexual abuse numbers are high and the child abuse numbers are high. And oftentimes now this is a time period where you can't have someone go directly to that home.”
That’s why for Berry-McGhee prevention is key. Whether virtual or in person, her Wellness Mobile provides a guaranteed safe space for girls to be heard, empowered and know their worth.
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