Samantha Wettje grew up with a father who struggled with mental illness and addiction, which had a lasting impact on her. During middle and high school, she wanted to distance herself from this experience as much as possible. When she was deciding what to do after high school, she chose a career in finance because she believed it would provide a stable life with a regular schedule and steady paycheck. However, after a few years, she realized that this work was not fulfilling for her. Samantha began to reflect on her experiences and considered the possibility of working with young people who have family members struggling with mental illness or addiction.
“I discovered that there were not many programs addressing this specific issue, and while many organizations were doing valuable work in the mental health field, I wanted to focus on helping kids who were affected by mental illness or addiction within their families or whose mental health was impacted by adversities,” she said.
This prompted her to start 16 Strong, an organization focused on this cause. She began researching and planning while in graduate school where she learned about the concept of “adverse childhood experiences. It was a life-changing and eye-opening experience for her, both personally and in terms of the work she was doing. It gave her words and language to describe what she had gone through; it had always felt like she was talking about someone other than herself. She thought about how powerful it could be if young people had this information while they were going through difficult experiences.
Samantha and her mom have always been close, she’s always been supportive of her daughter’s desire to make a change and start a movement. “My mom has always been eager to make a difference and create change, and when I finally realized that I wanted to make a change, my mom was on board from the beginning.”
Drawing upon her own adverse childhood experience, Samantha was driven to help young people like her and share information that would help them with what they were facing in their own lives. “Adolescents are old enough to understand this information if it is presented to them in the right way. Once they have this realization, they can do something about it, but it’s hard to do something about something that you don’t know is happening or that has a name.”
At 16 Strong, young people are educated about the effects of adverse childhood experiences and how they can impact mental health. They focus on teaching them resiliency skills and how to develop strong support systems and positive coping mechanisms to better navigate the challenges that often come with facing adversity. A “Recognize, Resist and Reveal” approach is used in which they help young people recognize their situation, resist the negative impacts, and reveal their experiences to others in a way that is meaningful to them. “Storytelling is an important part of this process, as it can be powerful for both the person sharing and for those who are listening. They encourage young people to share their experiences with others so that they don’t have to deal with them alone,” explains Samantha.
The focus of the organization is on youth-led initiatives, such as peer-to-peer training and presentations, where youth leaders across the country are trained and supported in bringing information about adverse childhood experiences and advocacy back to their communities and schools in a way that feels comfortable for them. In addition, 16 Strong has a youth advocacy board, which has grown in the last few years and includes high school students from all over the country, as well as college students who are bringing this information to their college campuses. The organization has found this model to be effective and believes that it is a way to sustainably reach more young people.
There is a lot of work to be done to help young people dealing with ACEs and their impacts on their mental health. 16 Strong believes that using a youth-led approach can make their work more relatable to young people and encourage them to take action on their challenges and struggles.
“When presentations are given by classmates, it can make the information feel more relatable and make it easier for young people to share their own experiences with their peers. It can also make it feel more approachable to talk about difficult topics with one person, rather than a whole group.” Samantha explains. 16 Strong’s youth-led initiatives, such as peer-to-peer training and presentations, aim to encourage young people to share their experiences and feel less alone in dealing with their challenges.
“A big goal for 16 Strong is to continue to provide more resources to kids across the country, particularly in under-resourced areas that don’t have access to mental health counselors or health education.” In thinking about long-term goals, Samantha notes that the organization aims to have student representatives from as many high schools and colleges as possible bringing this information to their communities, through programs such as youth leaders and ambassadors. 16 Strong also hopes to be able to provide more physical resources to these communities, such as materials that can be made available in pediatricians’ offices and local libraries. The organization has been able to do much of its work with very little funding and is hoping to be able to expand its reach and resources in the future.
In thinking about an experience that stood out to her, Samantha said, “A student wrote in a reflection exercise that they had learned that going through challenges or adversity doesn’t make them different and it’s not bad, and instead means that they are part of a large and supportive community of people who have gone through similar things. This was a proud moment for the organization, as it reflects the message that they hope to impart to young people: that everyone goes through adversity, and no one wants to feel alone.” Another specific instance included when a student who had gone through a 16 Strong workshop wrote in a reflection piece that they now know that experiencing adversity makes them a part of a strong, supportive community, and not alone.
“Presentations are powerful and often inspire students to get involved.” Samantha continues “An experience that stands out for 16 Strong is when a student on their youth board has given presentations on adverse childhood experiences and the work of the organization to multiple classes at their school. After these presentations, there are often more students from that school who want to get involved and help with the work of the organization.” One class was so moved by the presentation that they sent the student who gave it handwritten thank you notes and a gift basket to show their appreciation. This was a meaningful accomplishment for the student and the organization, as it shows that their work is having a positive impact on young people.
From the beginning, 16 Strong has made it a priority to ensure that no one is prevented from accessing their resources due to a lack of funds. They have done much of their work without funding, relying on volunteers and their resources to make a difference. While they have recently become a formal nonprofit and have begun seeking grants and donations, they have built the organization from scratch without financial support, using their willpower and the help of those who fully support their mission. Everyone who works with the organization, including its youth leaders and those in the social media and graphic design positions are volunteers.16 Strong’s approach has been to identify a problem and work to solve it, rather than being held back by logistical concerns.
As a grantee of the Pollination Project, Samantha plans to use the funds to provide more resources to schools and communities in need. This includes creating and distributing materials such as pamphlets and flyers for guidance offices and coping skills resources for students.
“The goal is to make this information more accessible and tangible for students, particularly in under-resourced areas that may not have access to mental health resources,” Samantha explained. 16 Strong aims to provide these resources to both the schools they are currently working with, as well as new communities that may not have access to this type of information. By providing physical resources, Samantha hopes to help students not just understand the concepts they are learning, but also have tools they can use to apply them in their own lives.