Shannon Fuller, recently named NEA-New Hampshire’s ESP of the Year, now finds herself in the running for National ESP of the Year. By all measures, Shannon has been an active leader who is truly making a difference in the lives of countless families. The best person to tell her story is Shannon.
Tell us a bit about your day as an Education Support Professional?
Like most educators, my daily work schedule has a wide variety of responsibilities. Before school starts, I greet and spend time with students as they gather by the school. They visit and play together in groups to increase social engagement before classes begin. I’ve worked in two different schools now and have had the opportunity to be a part of lunch and bus dismissal at each school. During lunch, I love to go around and visit with students I not otherwise see, since I work with a select group of students, and have conversations with them. I love bus duty because I get to know each grade level. Again, something I would not be able to do otherwise because I only work in grades four and five. Bus duty gives me the ability to get to know the students from kindergarten all the way up to grade 5.
I have been involved in my school community for many years now. I began by leading a Chess Club for students in grades four and five after school once a week. This was an activity that the students really enjoyed. There were about 28 students who attended every week doing something fun.
Shannon and the Paraprofessionals she works with are very, very active in Keene. It has been Shannon’s personal story that has shaped much of what drives her to reach out to her community and pursue her goals. Can you tell us what the source of your motivation is?
November 17, 2014. This is the date that I will never forget because that is the day I had to bring my husband from his work to a locked psychiatric unit.
I did not tell anyone at my work or in my immediate family because of the stigma associated with mental illness. I spent the next 2 days in a daze at school, and still I told no one. I spent the next 12 months trying to put our life back together again.
Then I saw John Broderick speak at the NEA-NH Fall Instructional Conference a year after my husband’s hospitalization and I was astonished to see that someone was openly and publicly talking about the stigma associated with mental health issues. I said to him, “you can talk about this? Is it OK to talk about this?” His talk motivated and awakened my drive to do something about this issue. That is how this amazing adventure of hard work in our community started.
So, what is your goal, what are you trying to accomplish?
My goal is to end the stigma of mental illness and substance use disorder, and help people understand how trauma directly connects to both. I have written grants and been awarded over $26,300 to allow us to do this transformative work.
My personal growth has come from the ability to finally tell my story. Every time I am asked to speak, I begin with the story of us – the story of my husband and myself and our hard work.
My colleagues and I believe that the telling of that story directly led this group of paraprofessionals pulling off the impossible: we were able to connect local families with local supports when they needed it most.
We have been able to bring former Chief Justice John Broderick to the Keene area three times now. We partnered with Samaritans to bring mental health videos to the Keene area. We partnered with Indieflix to bring videos to the Keene School District, so families and staff can watch and start conversations around these important topics. We have been asked to provide training to other area NEA-NH local associations on these topics. And we have been able to bring in community partners who for years wanted to get into the schools to start this important work but were not able to do so.
We have been able to start conversations with families and create a safe place for them to seek the support they need.
Our increased visibility on removing the stigmas associated with mental health issued has enabled us to sponsor events like the teen boys who are Pedaling for Prevention to prevent suicide and bring awareness about suicide prevention. Each year we’re asked to attend the high school wellness weeks at Keene High and Monadnock High. We hand out our Stand Up to Stigma swag and help create stress tools with the students right at school. This is when we hear students tell us they have anxiety or are feeling depressed or that they are seeing a counselor. These are discussions that were not spoken aloud in the past and we tell the students to keep talking about these issues because it will lead to a much healthier community.
Your personal story, and your ability to share it with others, defined your mission. It seems you’ve also been able to infuse that passion into the work of the Keene Paraprofessionals in helping you reach that goal.
The Keene Paras have worked tirelessly the past 4 years to create, promote and implement activities that help the community, and increase awareness of mental illness, substance use disorders and trauma. We work with a variety of groups like Samaritans, YMCA, AFHY, and the Keene School District to bring events such as Suicide: The Ripple Effect to Keene State College. We have worked with the YMCA to promote healthy habits to reduce the use of tobacco and alcohol in the community with teens. We have worked with AFHY to create toolkits to bring into the schools to help with mental health and making healthy choices. The Indieflix videos I mentioned included Like, about social media and its impact on students, Angst, about anxiety and how it affects students and their families, and Upstanders, a video on how to help create safe social media environments for students and how to help students help each other. We are continuing our work with Indieflix by bringing Finding Kind this winter to our schools and community.
We brought some amazing training into our schools. I worked with the administration for two years to bring in training for paras and tutors around how the brain works and how trauma affects the brain. Trauma can lead to mental health issues and often can lead to substance use disorder as a person seeks to calm down the issues from the trauma. This has led to a great partnership with many community partners, and they thank us so much for bringing them in to connect with staff in the schools.
Do you have any other examples of reaching out beyond the school building into the community to help reach your goals?
Last fall we asked if we could have a booth at a large local event, Pumpkin Fest, where thousands of people come to see the Jack O Lanterns lit up. We were accepted and at our booth we were able to hand out lots of our Stand Up to Stigma swag and chat to people stopping by to see who we were and what we were all about. Of course, and by design, this led to some conversations that we could not have had before with people who we do not get to chat with on a regular basis.
All this work must have had a positive impact on your local. What’s changed day-to-day for your members as a result of this work?
At the workplace, our paras have found their voice. We speak up when we see something we believe is not safe for ourselves or our students. We can have open conversations with each other about how we are feeling, to lift each other up, and help each other out during this trying time. We check in with each other and the rest of the staff to be sure we are ok, and we talk about issues surrounding our mental health openly and honestly.
We have become a close unit with our members always looking out for one another and telling one of us if someone needs our help. We are able to see with a different lens now if someone is having a hard time. We have had training in Mental Health First Aid and we can notice subtle differences and ask others if they are ok and lend support in any way possible.
We are some of the first people that other staff members come to if they have questions about how to find help around mental health or substance use disorder and trauma.
The community must have taken notice of your efforts. Have you noticed any change in how your local is perceived by the community and other ESP locals?
Our activities have absolutely enhanced the image of our ESP’s by allowing us to make connections with community partners and parents in a way that was not available to us before.
Our association has only been around for 4 years and in that time, we have become known for our work in the mental health, trauma and substance use disorder fields.
We have other locals asking us to come and help them create events like we have, and to facilitate training sessions for them around mental health, substance use disorders and trauma. Of course, we said yes.
This past year we were awarded Educators of the Year for the State of New Hampshire from NAMI. This is an amazing award, and we are very proud of the award.
Thank you so much for sharing this with us. Anything you would like to close with?
Join your union and become as active as you can. I have found a community in our union that is such a strong support for my well-being. The other thing I would say is find ‘your person’ – the one person you can go to for anything and everything. I found that in my grade 4 team.