Suzi Friesen, Director of Educational Programs for the True North Youth Foundation (TNYF) in Manitoba, facilitates the development of educational programs, including Project 11. Project 11 was inspired and created in honor of #11, Rick Rypien, former player of the Winnipeg Jets and Manitoba Moose. Suzi met Conway and the Marvin family in early 2019. She was inspired by how the family had such clarity about wanting to do something in Max’s honor. Their support and love for each other and the desire to do something positive that would empower other kids and other families really spoke to her. “There’s a warm homelike feeling that people really care,” Suzi said, of the Max Foundation and its members. She saw a lot of parallels between the values and goals of her work with Project 11, making the decision to partner an easy one.
In September 2019, with the support of the Max Foundation, Suzi brought the Project 11 curriculum into the Warroad Public Schools. While many schools opt for a one-off session, Warroad Schools invested in the 15-week program, first for the elementary levels, and later in a program for high school students.
“Everyone was on board,” Suzi, commented when describing the commitment of Warroad school administration and staff. “Staff didn’t see it as an extra but essential for students to continue to learn and grow. They were really excited about it and wanted to do it. It was nice to have such a good community feel.” By that Christmas, all the picture books for the curriculum had been donated by the Max Foundation, something considered unusual, Friesen noted, because schools are often limited by budget constraints.
The curriculum’s aim is to remove barriers and normalize the conversation regarding mental health. It teaches life skills that help students learn to self-reflect, become more self-aware, express how they’re feeling, and develop positive coping strategies. When the entire student body is working on practicing resiliency and building these skills, it lets students individually know they are not alone. Feeling a sense of community and belonging helps students feel less stuck and more empowered.
Three years later, Warroad continues to be “all in” with the Max Foundation’s ongoing support for Project 11. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive as students relay back to teachers and Project 11 staff how they’ve incorporated the lessons learned into real life.
Suzi said, “The Max Foundation’s mission to want to make change – and important change – is just going to have such a positive effect not only on their community in these few years but in years to come. These students are going to be practicing these important life skills that many of us wish we had learned or known about when we were younger and it’s going to have a long-term impact.”
The work done in Warroad has inspired other communities, including Roseau, Laverne and places across Canada, to reach out to the Max Foundation and inquire about how best to incorporate Project 11’s programs into their own programs and schools.
Roseau’s School Superintendent Tom Jerome commented “It’s important that we acknowledge when we’re struggling. It’s important to learn how we can help each other. And when you go through these events and you lose a loved one, a staff member, or a family member, that leaves a mark on a person or a family, on a school that never goes away. And if there’s anything we can do to support any one of our kids, any one of our staff members, anybody in our community, we need to do that. And I think that the Max Foundation and all others involved has been a nudge, and a push to do something about it, to talk about this, because there are no do overs. I really believe that the Max Foundation has allowed kids to recognize and acknowledge mental health issues, has allowed adults to have conversations not in hushed corners or behind closed doors, but out in the open.”
Craig Oftedahl, Superintendent for the Laverne School District loves that the curriculum is a great tool box that is so easy for the staff to use. “I think the need is going to continue to escalate, and having the program in place and having resources available becomes that much more important. I don’t know that anybody has all the answers, but you can talk through it and work through it and figure it out, or at least make a concerted effort to go in the right direction.”
Warroad Elementary Principal, Brita Comstock, and Kendra Marvin, MS, BCBA, Behavior Specialist, agree that the curriculum is being well received by the teachers and love that you open it up and just start teaching. Kendra continued, “We call it giving our teachers a toolbox, and equipping our teachers with tools so that they can help kids navigate through these big emotions and through trauma and through things from the school perspective. And I think we’ve seen success with the 15 week program too.”
“We want our students to know and understand that being a part of the school means that you are a part of the greater community and the world at large.”