Teens in southern Nevada’s Moapa Valley are on a mission to make a difference in their community by tackling mental health issues through their 4-H Teen Leadership Corps Club. In an effort to help those struggling with mental health issues, the club, which is part of University of Nevada, Reno Extension’s 4-H Program, is raising awareness, providing educational opportunities, promoting connectivity and identifying other ways to make a positive difference in the lives of their peers and families.
The 4-H Teen Leadership Corps is a little over two years old and was founded in the rural community located in northeast Clark County when Gracie Leavitt, a 4-H member, wanted to address some of the issues her community was facing coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. While schools were conducted remotely, students faced loss of connectivity from in-person learning, afterschool activities and sports. Although much has returned to normal, mental health issues are still plaguing the small community, which has one of the highest suicide rates in Nevada. According to a recent interview in the Moapa Valley Progress with Metro Police Sergeant Kegan Doty, there were about 60 attempts or threats of suicide in 2022 in the Moapa Valley community, which he noted is an abnormal increase of suicide threats, attempts and completions during a very short period.
“Gracie was our first and lone member,” Dianna Walker, Extension 4-H program officer, said. “And from there it grew. Then we had three and then we had five. Now we have 22.”
Mental health outreach and suicide prevention efforts
Every Thursday, the 4-H Teen Leadership Corps members meet to discuss issues in their community, and plan their mental health conference, which they hold at least once a year, and other events that will positively improve the mental health of Moapa Valley’s community members. From deciding on a topic and finding a speaker to planning fundraising events and securing sponsorships and donations, the 4-H members plan every aspect of the events it holds.
“We put on an annual mental health fair that teaches and unites the community,” Faith Kelly, a 4-H Teen Leadership Corps member, said. “For people who think they’re alone, it’s a reminder that they are not. Along with those fairs, we bring speakers to the schools, and I can honestly say that I know we are saving lives by doing this.”
Each conference day consists of three speaking engagements. Beginning with assemblies at middle school and high schools and concluding with a community event for families, the community event is structured to allow parents and youth to attend and hear talks that are tailored to them. The 4-H club gets dinner donated for all attendees and provides activities for youth to do while parents listen to speakers. Then, the parents and youth swap places, and the parents enjoy dinner while youth hear discussions geared toward them.
According to Walker, this structure has allowed the club to reach a larger audience than a single speaking engagement. Each time they host middle and high school assemblies, nearly 1,000 students are reached. In the past, evening community events have attracted between 400 to 700 youth and parents.
“It’s great for them [4-H members] because they meet with their high school and middle school administrators,” Walker said. “They have a partnership with them, as well as the student council and National Honor Society. So, it's really a great opportunity for kids to explore partnerships within civic engagement and get people together and do things to help improve issues within their peer group.”
Walker says their meetings are often over two hours long.
“I try so hard to keep it shorter, but they just are really passionate kids,” she said. “And they have a lot that they're talking about and excited about.”
Recently, the club worked to get funding for Hope Squad, a peer-to-peer youth suicide prevention program, for the high school and middle schools, which they secured through a partnership with Richard Egan from the Nevada Department of Suicide Prevention and Intermountain Health Care. Hope Squad provides evidence-based training to schools on how to approach mental health and suicide prevention and puts peers in the position of providing support. Members of the Hope Squad are trained to be aware of their peers, watch for learning signs and take action when someone is struggling. Hope Squad’s areas of focus include safety, connectedness, bullying prevention, mental wellness, reducing stigma and substance abuse prevention.
Fundraising and providing connections
In addition to their conferences, the club’s fundraisers for the events also provide opportunities to connect with others. They’ve held 5K runs and movie nights, and most recently they organized a barn dance, where they asked attendees for a $2 donation. Walker said these fundraising events are extremely popular and provide a great opportunity for kids to be together, develop social skills and make friends.
“I'm telling you, almost every time we do any event, whether it's a 5K or barn dance or even the connectivity games that we do, there's always a moment where I kind of sit back and see that everyone is laughing and enjoying themselves,” she said. “And you just feel such a great sense of community, and I always just tear up a little bit because it's just so needed right now.”
In addition to learning how to put on fundraisers, the 4-H members have learned how to reach out to businesses and other civic groups for support for their mission.
Lex Bowler, a 13-year-old member of 4-H Teen Leadership Corps, presented at the local Moapa Valley Rotary Club, where he asked for and received a $5,000 donation for the Club’s work.
“I think they [Moapa Valley Rotary] were pretty stirred when a 13-year-old kid got up to talk about mental health and how important it is and why they're doing what they're doing,” Walker said.
Supporting their peers
Although the club’s main focus has been on mental health issues and what they can do to address them, the members don’t shy away from the opportunity to support others in their community. One member took notice that the Moapa Valley High School Robotics team qualified for the VEX Robotics 2022 World Championship in Dallas, Texas, but didn’t have enough money to travel.
“One of the older members came to me and said, ‘Did you know the robotics team made worlds and they don't have enough money to get to there? We need to do a fundraiser for that. We need to help them,’” Walker said. “So, I said, let's put it on as an agenda item and have everyone vote on it. And sure enough, they voted to do outdoor movie night and all that money went to the robotics team.”
On top of supporting the high school robotics team, that fundraiser led to the creation of a 4-H robotics club, so those with a passion for this competitive activity could continue building their skills in the summer months when school is out. Walker says that, in total, there are about 30 to 35 active 4-H clubs in Moapa Valley, with a wide range in focus, including gardening, shooting sports, adventure club with activities such as hiking and paddle boarding, sports clubs such as baseball and volleyball, and choir club, to name a few.
Members of the 4-H Teen Leadership Corps traveled to Carson City to participate in 4-H Day at the Capital. During that time, members met with legislators about an education bill they are passionate about, as well as toured our state’s capital.
In the upcoming months, the 4-H Teen Leadership Corps will host two additional dances, on May 20 and July 4, with members teaching line and swing dancing. It is in the process of planning another mental health conference for the fall, which will focus on the dangers of social media on the mental health of youth. Past topics have included a focus on suicide prevention and on the harms of pornography.