Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School eighth-grader Neha Tallapragada was given a task last semester: Find something she is passionate about that also benefits the local community and pursue it for a "20 percent" project in her leadership class. (The project, which teachers have used at many local schools, is modeled after Google's program allowing employees to use 20 percent of their time to work on something outside of their job descriptions.)
Tallapragada settled on reducing the stigma around mental health as her passion, and a community walk will be held today, April 29, as the way to benefit her Palo Alto community.
"This is a very driven community, but it's important to step back for a minute and think about Are you mentally well? Are you feeling OK? Are you feeling too stressed out?" Tallapragada said. "Especially students need to recognize that it's okay to not be OK and it's okay to talk about if you're feeling different or if you're feeling isolated in your feelings."
She hopes the event will be a space for that, as a well as a symbolic walk or run in solidarity with those who might be struggling with mental health issues.
The "Stigmabusters" walk will be held from 12:30 to 1:05 p.m. at JLS at 400 East Meadow Drive. Participants will be given stickers, walk around a track together and hear several speakers, including Tallapragada and JLS Common Core coach Ann Lorey, who helped Tallapragada during the planning process.
Along the way, Tallapragada also worked with mental health therapist Sirina Warfel, leadership teacher Jaime Buddle and Gerry Larvy, a member on the Santa Clara County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) board of directors and former JLS administrator. She said Larvy provided critical experience and advice on the logistics for the event namely making it more inclusive by making it a shorter rather than longer run or walk.
"Neha's commitment to opening the conversation on mental health is a great example of what can happen when we allow students to crate projects that revolve around their passions," JLS Principal Sharon Ofek said in a district press release. Other students' projects included organizing a party for people with disabilities at the nonprofit Abilities United and bake sales to raise money for local organizations like the Palo Alto municipal animal shelter or nonprofit Ronald McDonald House.
Tallapragada said her school counselors have done a good job of starting conversations about mental health at the school, including talking about stress and how to unwind.
"But there are people, as there are people everywhere, who make jokes about mental illness, who are not especially sensitive towards it," Tallapragada said, "and that's just part of the stigma surrounding mental health. You can laugh it off or just completely ignore it, and those are two things that we don't want to do. That's what this event is about."
Non-JLS staff or students should check in at the main office before attending today's event.