Mental Health Champions: Why & How Jenny Livelli Is Helping To Champion Mental Wellness

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Actively listening to myself and others — with a simple numbered response, energy checks reveal so much about where I am, or others are. More importantly, it gives space for us to do something about whatever is troubling us or receive help.

As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Jenny Livelli.

An unwavering advocate for children, Jenny Livelli, President and CEO, applies her visionary leadership and business acumen to build The Children’s Guild’s capacity to positively impact the children and families it serves.

With her considerable expertise in administration, special education, continuous quality improvement and behavioral health, she is uniquely positioned to lead the organization in building a culture that engages students, fosters achievement and meets the needs of every learner.

Prior to being named CEO in March 2021, Jenny served as chief operating officer of the organization. She has also served as director of continuous quality improvement.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in the small town of Carthage, NC. As a child, I dreamed of being a teacher. My first students were my dolls, who I would line up on the floor in my bedroom in front of a piece of notebook paper I’d taped to the wall to designate my teaching space. I would spend countless hours teaching them all sorts of lessons, and we always started “class” with an initial check-in. I wanted to know how their morning started, how ready they were to learn, and how they were feeling as we began our lessons for the day. Of course, I did not realize it then, but from the very beginning there was this pull to involve the whole student in the learning experience. My teaching and leadership style continues to center on not just nurturing the student’s academic needs but consider how their emotions impacted their journey as well. This became more prevalent as I moved forward in my work with individuals with special needs. I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a certification in teaching students that were deaf or hard of hearing.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you or your organization are trying to address?

Here at The Children’s Guild, we aim to provide our children and families with individualized transformative experiences that allows them to thrive in their communities. They define what success looks like, and our team meets them on that journey. This work is deeply personal for me and so many of our team members, which also allows for it to be extremely heavy at times. In many ways, we are caring for the caregivers, and in lightening their load, we are increasing ours. However, I do believe that our connection to the mission also contributes to our resilience. The Covid-19 pandemic underscored how overwhelmed our teachers and helping professional staff are. We took note and action early because we needed our people to know and believe that they matter to the organization beyond the work they were doing. We acknowledged that our personal wellbeing needed prioritization and in doing so this was a strength, not weakness.

One tangible step we took was incorporating “energy checks” at the start of meetings to get a direct pulse on where we were mentally before the work began. During these checks, we go around the room and rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how we are feeling, with 10 being the most vibrant. We also acknowledged something for which we are grateful. When low scores were provided, or there was a significant negative change from someone’s normal range, we did not brush it off. We gave that person space to express themselves and provided support as needed, even if that caused us to pause that meeting or task for the time being. I believe this practice has led to a more compassionate workplace as people heard from their peers that they are not alone in the experience. It also gave us permission to challenge the work and take care of ourselves when we need it.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I was an itinerate teacher in my student teaching experience, traveling to multiple sites each day to work with my students. Coupled with my early experiences “teaching” my dolls, I learned quickly that assessing the other variables that impact student learning was critical to my success as a teacher. I spent time leading students that were in a first-grade general education classroom collectively sitting and folding origami cranes. They sat for 45 mins working diligently on that project while my special education student struggled through the lesson. What I learned while meeting with those students and their families was that they all had defined success for their child, and each definition was different. I knew then that it was my job to create an environment where everyone could achieve their vision of success.

That belief has stayed with me in my leadership of The Children’s Guild. Just like the families we serve, our workforce is diverse, in professional roles, family structure, background, physical and mental health, and more. What our workforce experiences outside of our doors and how it influences who they are is important to us. I acknowledge those experiences often make them more relatable and compassionate in their work, but I’m also aware that these experiences require me to look after them as teachers look after students. I am on this journey with my team to achieve the success they have outlined for themselves.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

During one of my first evaluations at the start of my teaching career, when I was a teacher at a public elementary school, my supervisor came to observe my session with a student who lived with hearing loss. As you could imagine, even though I had been working with this student throughout the school year, I was nervous. When you work with students with special needs, every day is its own. It could be a day where we were moving forward with our progress, or it could be a day where we regressed a bit. There was also the possibility that we could identify a new need that had to be addressed.

When my supervisor and I came into the room, there sat my student, under the table, in a ball, unwilling to learn. I greeted him with a smile, but inside I was panicking. I wanted everything to go “perfectly”, but, initially, it seemed like we were headed down a path from which we could not return. In what felt like an eternity, but what was probably only a couple of minutes, I did what felt best at the time — I joined the student under the table and started our session there.

At the time, my action was considered a unique approach to service. Today I stand by it as a standard of practice. We must meet students where they are. Research shows that a solely authoritative approach to education does not produce results. I’ve also learned that to be true in my work as the leader of an organization. Individuals, be it my students or staff, thrive when we acknowledge and act with the whole person in mind.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I’ll never forget when one of our families at our Monarch Baltimore school experienced a tragedy. The father killed the mother, who was pregnant, and then he killed himself, leaving behind their children, including two of our students. Overnight, the grandparents, who not only were dealing with the loss of their own child, became primary caregivers to their grandchildren. This event, as you can imagine, was extremely traumatic to this family and the school community; but we rallied immediately to get them all the support they needed.

Within a few days, the children began to ask to come back to school. Given all the changes they were experiencing, it wasn’t a surprise. School, for many years, was a safe space for them. It was understandable that they wanted to return to a space that seemed “normal” to them. On that first day back, the daughter broke down in the classroom. She was crying hysterically, calling for her parents, and unresponsive to typical calming strategies. It was not until a Behavioral Therapist pulled her into a tight, bear hug, that she eventually calmed down.

Losing parents at any age is distressing. In theory, the daughter broke down at school because the safety she generally experienced there allowed her the freedom to “lose it”. That moment, particularly the response from the therapist, exemplified the importance of meeting individuals where they are. Even under the best circumstances, plans do not always go the way they are supposed to. Protocols, typically, call for some distance emotionally when encountering behavior like this. However, this therapist saw this child’s humanity and individuality first and gave her exactly what she needed. She modeled vulnerability and flexibility, and in the end, the child got exactly what she needed.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

One of my most influential mentors was my student teaching supervisor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She helped me to realize the importance of understanding your students and having a relationship with them and their families to achieve success. She taught me to listen first before creating a grand plan. She taught me to be flexible with modifying plans because how we define success can change. Additionally, she helped me to see that one of the keys to success was developing a core relationship first because they can vastly inform our evidence-based practices.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

Mental health conditions are the part that you can’t see but can feel. It is unfortunate, but stigma continues to exist because we lack wide-spread education on the issues; and we know a lack of understanding directly results in a lack of funding to address them. We can easily liken mental health conditions to physical illnesses, like heart disease, in how they overwhelmingly affect a large number of people. However, because physical ailments have visible tests we can run or pain that we can see, they are easier to understand. Mental health conditions are largely related to our brain and how we feel, and many people cannot fathom their severity, particularly if they have never experienced it themselves. As a society, we react or judge mental health conditions based on how the behavior affects other people, not on how or why if affects the person inflicted.

What is interesting is that that most people know someone who lives with a mental health condition. If we could move to a place where, as a society, we openly talk about these issues from every facet of life it would be transformative. Funding for research or places to receive help would be more widely available. Those who are inflicted would feel less alone. We could move to a preventative service care model where people, especially children, are being equipped with the tools necessary to handle these conditions if they arise; and even if they never experience a condition themselves, they still would be more likely to have compassion for someone else who did. This society I envision, would allow for early intervention across the board, especially for families. This world is possible, and hopefully we are closer to it.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

Individuals: Speak up and speak out! One in five Americans live with mental illness. We need more people to speak up and share their experiences so that others understand the challenges of mental illness as well as we do with physical illness.

Society: Education is key. The more we know the more we can support individuals with mental illness. We need to show compassion for others, allowing time to reflect on those experiences shared.

Government: We need policy change. Let’s share the power of lived experience so that others join in advocating for the services necessary.

What are your 5 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

Five strategies I use to promote my own wellbeing and mental wellness are:

  1. Actively listening to myself and others — with a simple numbered response, energy checks reveal so much about where I am, or others are. More importantly, it gives space for us to do something about whatever is troubling us or receive help.
  2. Extend grace to myself and other — we all tackle difficult issues every day. Despite how so many of us try, we are not meant to be perfect but rather life-long learners. It doesn’t matter if we stumble or fall, every time we can, we should get up, learn from it, implement change, and try again. It is always helpful in these moments to remember, “I AM ENOUGH”.
  3. Remember to laugh and have fun — Laughter creates and strengthens our human connection. I believe the work we are doing is extremely meaningful, but it is also heavy at times. Remembering to laugh and have fun is important, and it feels good!
  4. Schedule control — Life for everyone is busier than ever, which why it is necessary to schedule time for yourself. You are important and scheduled focus time allows you to grow as an individual so that work doesn’t dominate your time to live. I am an introvert so self-advocating for time alone is key!
  5. Unplugging — This is so important because when we walk away, we often gain a fresh perspective. When I take leave, I unplug from the daily responsibilities, leaving my team members with my trust. This is not only reinforcing my confidence in them, but allowing me to have time to step back and immerse myself in things that I love, such as reading, listening to podcasts, and spending time with my family. This time away often allows me to recharge and come back with new energy to share!

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

I love Brene Brown. Podcasts, books, videos, you name it! I love her willingness to be vulnerable throughout the courageous journey of leadership. She reminds me to “have the courage to show up when you don’t know the outcome.” You can see why I like her…what does one do when the student that you are teaching won’t come out from under that table…you join them!

I also meet regularly with an executive coach, who is a safe space and incredible resource as I take my journey in this new professional space. I highly encourage others to find a space with someone that can listen to you providing continuous support and accountability.

If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Every day I work with amazing people who are driven by their connection to the work and their desire to care for others. If everyone approached every aspect of life with this mindset, it would be transformative. I challenge everyone reading this to think about the possibilities. We would live in a society that is immensely more compassionate, where the collective good is put before our individualistic instincts. Our children would grow up in a world where so many of today’s problems would cease to exist or have solutions that are readily accessible because we would operate on a prevention model, not reactive. We would meet people where they are and devise strategies that help them, not alienate them. By making a positive impact we are investing in a brighter, better future. We owe it to coming generations to try.

How can our readers follow you online?

Please follow me on LinkedIn and follow The Children’s Guild at @thechildrensguild on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Mental Health Champions: Why & How Jenny Livelli Is Helping To Champion Mental Wellness was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.