With each deep breath that 17-year-old Brennan Moore takes, you can almost hear the stress of his worries evaporate. Tranquil music plays in the background, while a massage therapist kneads the knots in his back. Moore can feel his entire body start to unwind. “OK Brennan,” says the therapist about 15 minutes later, “the bell has rung for your next class.”
The high school senior didn’t realize how fast the time had gone by. He gets up from the table and after a hearty “thank you,” grabs his backpack and opens the door. In an instant, the sounds of soft guitars and rushing streams are replaced by slamming lockers and chatting students.
Welcome to the Wellness Room at Belfast Area High School.
“This was my way of giving students a glimpse of alternative types of health care that they can turn to when they are feeling stressed, or if they’re not feeling good,” says Dr. Jane Robertson, a chiropractor in Belfast whose son attends the high school. She and Kristen Burkholder, a licensed massage therapist and Reiki master, started the Wellness Room in the Spring of 2012.
“Right before we opened, we had to do a lot of presentations—to staff, to the school board, and to each class,” says Burkholder. “I’m a singer, so I’ve been nervous performing before, but that was nothing compared to the gut-churning, knee-knocking heebie-jeebies I experienced before Jane and I stood up in front of about 100 freshmen. As expected, we got a lot of blank stares and a few snorts of laughter, but there was also happy excitement and healthy curiosity, too.”
About 10 practitioners from the Belfast area donate their time at the school, assisting students, staff, and faculty. The sessions are typically 15 minutes long and include massage therapy, Reiki, acupuncture, reflexology, craniosacral therapy (which focuses on the head and spinal cord), and chiropractic.
Practitioners post their session times on the Wellness Room’s Facebook page. Students must have a signed permission slip to participate, and they can’t skip a class to get a massage or other treatment. “We do two-hour shifts, one in the morning and one in the afternoon,” explains Robertson. “That incorporates their break and their lunch. They can also come in during study hall or free period.” Sessions are on a first-come, first-served basis and students can visit the Wellness Room as often as their schedules permit.
Moore, a senior at Belfast Area High School, has tried acupuncture, craniosacral therapy, and massage. He enjoys massages the most and tries to get into the Wellness Room at least once a week for one. “First of all, getting a massage is one of the best things in the world,” Moore says. “The Wellness Room gives me a reason to want to go to school.”
Like Moore, Maggie Goscinski also enjoys massages. “I was always curious about it,” she says, “and now I know how essential it is.” The sophomore goes to the Wellness Room once or twice a week. “It gives me something to look forward to,” she says.
Stress is a major motivating factor for kids to come, according to Robertson, but the practitioners also see athletes, students with family issues, and even those dealing with addictions. “What has struck me the most with these students is they are all so appreciative,” says Robertson. “They get off the table to say ‘thank you so much.’ I really believe that they’re genuinely happy that we’re there.”
The room itself is located in an old language arts lab at the high school. There are two massage tables, soft lighting, and paintings on the wall. Robertson says that, because the room is set back a bit, it’s virtually soundproof. “We always have music going and we also have a fan on,” she explains.
“By its nature, [the Wellness Room] is a wonderful and value-added program for our students and has been received very well,” says Steve Fitzpatrick, principal at BAHS. “The wellness experts do a great job and engage students educationally in each of the specific disciplines, and our students are fortunate for the service.”
Burkholder calls the Wellness Room “a kind place in a confusing world.” She sees it as a sanctuary within the school. “Kids can get some perspective and much-needed downtime in the presence of professional, nurturing adults, who have no other agenda for them other than taking care of them,” Burkholder says. “If they’re able to make better, healthier choices for themselves after being in the Wellness Room, and they feel less like they’re spinning out of control, that’s what we’re aiming for.”
The Wellness Room at Belfast Area High School is based on a model developed by Camden Hills Regional High School more than 12 years ago. “We had a terrible series of losses back in 2001,” says Judy Ottmann, a school counselor at Camden Hills. Several student deaths, coupled with 9-11, devastated the entire community. “It was such a dark and difficult time.”
The high school decided to hold a Wellness Day to help students heal. “We had community volunteers come in and offer sessions in massage and Reiki,” says Ottmann. “There was such a positive feedback about the program that we opened up a room and start offering it on a weekly basis for faculty and students.”
Currently, the school offers Reiki, massage, reflexology, Jin Shin Jyutsu (a type of energy releasing therapy), craniosacral therapy, and zero balancing. “Although there are many ways in which schools look after the students’ well-being, through the school nurse, guidance counselors, and teachers, what [the Wellness Room] offers needs no words,” says Jan Warren, coordinator of the Camden Hills Wellness Room. “They don’t need to talk to us. Our work releases some of their tensions and helps them regain their physical and emotional footing to go back into their lives.”
A banner over the Wellness Room’s door pictures a beach vacation. Inside, there is a futon, a lounge chair, rug, pictures, and plants. The room itself has changed locations several times. “Whenever there was a pressing issue for space, we would be bumped,” Ottmann says. About five years ago, there was no space, and the Wellness team suddenly found themselves homeless. “Because of an outcry from the public, the school became very creative,” says Ottmann. “They actually took out some lockers in one of the hallways and built us a permanent room.”
Like Belfast Area High School’s Wellness Room, students can only attend sessions during downtime from classes, and the Camden Hills Wellness Room also has a Facebook page with weekly schedules.
Maggie Rayner’s family is very much into alternative healing, so the thought of trying out the different modalities at the Wellness Room wasn’t intimidating. “I love it here,” says the junior at Camden Hills. “It’s a great place to unwind and breathe. I come in whenever my schedule allows.”
Melissa Lamont is a licensed massage therapist who has volunteered at the Camden Hills Wellness Room for three years. She’s also the mother of four children in the school district. “I know firsthand how much stress these kids are under every day, with the pressures of high school and all it entails to be a growing, learning teenager,” says Lamont. “I originally started so that I could see my own kids’ faces brighten when they saw the Wellness Room sign out in the hallway. I quickly realized that they were also bringing in their friends, telling them ‘See my Mom, she’ll make you feel better.’”
Ellen Heckerd has offered craniosacral therapy at the Camden Hills Wellness Room for six years. She recalls a student last year who, in her words, “rocked my world.” He’d obviously been in a bad mood and arrived for his session rude, entitled, and arrogant, says Heckerd. “I had to very consciously put my opinions and judgments aside, because the aggression that he emitted was very challenging.” But just half an hour later, Heckerd says there was a completely different young man on her table. “It was unbelievable. He left the room respectfully, gently, and with gratitude.”
“I’ve seen students who graduated years ago, and they light up as they tell me how much the program meant to them,” Warren says. “I’ve met middle school students who can’t wait to get to high school so they can use the Wellness Room. Students tell me even if they don’t have time to come for a session, they feel comforted knowing it is there.”