Coakley '23 Helps Others Rediscover Their Inner Child Through Pop-Up Wellness Centers

Miko Coakley ’23 sat alone at a long table in Upper Heath beside a poster drawing of a large black and white elephant. Markers of various colors sat unopened in a coffee cup to her left. As she waited, the seconds started to feel like minutes. 

“Was this a silly idea?” she pondered. “What if no one shows up?” she asked herself. 

Her doubts quieted momentarily as a boy in the Junior School approached her table. 

“What is this?” he asked Miko with a look of cautious curiosity. 

“It’s just a way to take a break,” Miko answered, handing him a marker. “Want to draw?”

The J-Schooler obliged, uncapped a marker, and began to color. Minutes later, more than a dozen Junior School students crowded the table, each one of them coloring a section of the elephant. Miko didn’t have much time to take stock of all of their smiling faces. She too was busy coloring.

This was an early iteration of Miko’s Hopkins Wellness Center concept, a senior project idea that became a substantially popular and successful program, allowing all members of the Hopkins community to take breaks from the hustle of the school day by partaking in simple activities like coloring and making puzzles.

The Need for Connection

Like most teenagers who returned to a full in-person school experience following the COVID-19 pandemic, Miko longed to reconnect with her peers after finally signing out of Zoom learning. In the face of alarming statistics that show mental health issues spiking in teenagers across the country, the CDC has reiterated that finding a sense of “connectedness” can protect adolescents from poor mental health and other risks like drug use and violence. 

“During the pandemic, everything was centralized in one place,” said Miko. “School, work, and family were all at home and it was hard to separate those things. It left us wishing we had another place to go to just be kids,” she added. 

When Miko returned to school, she was determined to carve out time to decompress while also bonding with others. Without a formalized plan, she simply started asking her friends to color with her in the school store in Upper Heath. She and her friends felt a positive change right away.

“It ended up being something that I think a lot of people didn't know they needed. It's so much better for a kid to take a break and talk to real people, rather than going on their phones or thinking about their to-do lists,” said Miko.

Tracy Bray, who manages the school store, became Miko’s Adviser in the spring of her junior year. She fondly remembers those early coloring sessions. 

“Miko began spending free periods in the store with a few friends, and we would just talk about what was coming up, what was stressful, what was fun, anything. One day we started coloring, and we all noted how much better we felt taking those breaks,” said Bray, who was quick to point out that it was Miko’s desire to help others that turned the informal gatherings into something bigger.

Inspiration Leads to Action

For Miko, addressing mental health issues in adolescents had been top of mind back in her freshman year when she co-founded the Body Positive Alliance (BPA). Miko said that through this work, she began to see how pervasive mental health issues were for students, particularly in the area of self-confidence.

Inspired by these experiences as well as the positive outcome of her informal coloring sessions, Miko decided to devote her senior project to addressing student wellness.

From Concept to Reality

The senior project at Hopkins allows students to think critically about their passions and devote a dedicated period of six weeks creating something that lets their individual creativity and curiosity shine through. 

To fine-tune her concept, Miko chose Linda Romanchok, a School Counselor at Hopkins, to be her Senior Project Adviser. As a member of the student services team that works tirelessly to support students throughout their Hopkins careers, Romanchok bought in immediately.

“Prior to Miko’s senior project proposal, she and I had a number of conversations about ways that students could come together in a supported way to de-stress, find community with peers experiencing the same feelings, and also to reduce any negative stigma associated with needing ‘help’ or mental health support,” said Romanchok.

Miko’s initial solution to these issues was to create a permanent Wellness Center, which all members of the Hopkins community could utilize on a daily basis. She ultimately decided that, while the idea was strong, the physical logistics of finding an area on campus mid-year and the necessary procedural steps of transforming a space would end up taking too much time. Miko decided to instead test her concept through “Pop-up Wellness Centers” (later known as WPOPs) where various spaces around campus could be used week-by-week. As it turned out, having the opportunity to cover more ground by setting up inside various buildings or outdoors on nicer days allowed Miko to attract different groups of people around campus.

Spreading the Word

Miko utilized social media, the School’s weekly internal newsletter @HOP, and direct emails to faculty, staff, and students to raise awareness. 

“Stop by for the whole block or just a minute to recover from the school day and relax with some coloring, fidgets, snacks, and games,” one email read. 

Miko said students and adults alike took immediate interest in the mindful coloring posters and books she made available. Romanchok said there is a good reason for this. She noted that artistic outlets and creative inspiration help reduce cortisol levels, commonly referred to as the “stress hormone,” while also allowing for one’s levels of endorphins and dopamine—hormones associated with happiness— to rise. For adolescents in particular who are still coming into their own and may be battling issues related to self esteem, Romanchok said the act of simply sitting and coloring may have added benefits.

While the option of drawing was always there, Miko experimented with additional activities like making slime to entice people to join for the first time and others to return. Before long, WPOPs became well known and well attended. 

Miko said when people came together, she saw them in a new light. Teachers and students alike seemed to shed their titles and roles and would start talking about their families, pets, and interests outside of school. 

Perhaps one of the most exciting outcomes during this process for Miko was that eventually, people no longer needed an explanation as to why the WPOPs were there. The benefits, it seemed, were inherently understood. 

When it was time to present her senior project, Miko had run 19 well-attended WPOPs. Unsurprisingly, the area she presented in quickly became its own WPOP, with students crowding around her table to color.

Plan for the Future

Both Romanchok and Bray said they could certainly see the benefits of the full-time Wellness Center concept.

“Allowing and encouraging our students to take some time for themselves and to make self-care a priority in their lives will not only help them in the immediate moment, but will also provide them with essential life skills beyond Hopkins,” said Romanchok.
“That sense of community, of knowing you are not alone, can matter a great deal to someone who is struggling to stay focused, balanced, and have some calm,” added Bray. 

One of the challenging aspects of student-led initiatives is the simple fact that students graduate. Miko is focused on ensuring that the Hopkins Wellness Center sticks around. With the future in mind, Miko met with Head of School Matt Glendinning to discuss her recommendations for next school year and beyond. Her ideas to keep the WPOPs going include identifying a group of students and a faculty member to assume leadership roles. Her ultimate goal would be to establish a physical Wellness Center space on campus.

Miko will be attending Princeton University in the fall. She anticipates how stressful those initial days at a new school can be for freshmen. Her solution? She plans on setting up a giant poster board and putting out a few markers. She’ll sit and wait patiently for a new friend to join. Even if it takes a few minutes, she knows it will be worth it.

“Simple activities and games bring our minds into the present moment, and at the same time, when we gather together, we are no longer alone in our struggles,” said Miko.

This article was originally printed in the 2023 Issue 2 edition of Views from the HillClick here to browse the full issue.
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