Learning to LIFT Teens

by admin December 4, 2023

Leelanau Investing For Teens, or LIFT, is Leelanau County’s only free out-of-schooltime program for 6th through 12th grade students. Over 236 days of the year, our staff and volunteers are mentoring teens sometimes starting at 8 a.m. and most days ending at 6 p.m. We greet students as they walk into school, join them for lunch in the cafeteria, host daily afterschool programs, help organize school dances, and are their loudest fans in the stands at games. We even get to hang out with local teens all summer long, exploring the natural beauty that Leelanau County has to offer daily.
Our staff often share the sentiment that we have the luckiest job in the world. We have the privilege of walking alongside local youth at the height of their development as our future leaders. We get to learn from them, try new things together, and laugh a lot, but our work is not without its challenges.


Youth Mental Health

Northwest lower Michigan, much like the rest of the country, is experiencing a youth mental health crisis. Teenagers are currently facing obstacles that no generation before has had to confront and the effect it has had on their mental health is devastating. 

Key findings from an anonymous survey hosted by Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation’s Youth Wellness Initiative have determined that “high school students in northwest lower Michigan are experiencing significant mental wellness challenges today, including anxiety and depression.”

Through consistency and trust built over time, our students and their families often turn to us in moments of crisis. As such, each day our staff is challenged with the delicate balance of needing to be mindful and present in an often tumultuous environment. The transition between joyfully engaging teens and needing to be calm and steady through crisis is demanding. That demand necessitates a commitment to growth, mindfulness, and learning from our staff members.


Empowerment through Education
LIFT operates on a lean budget, with one of our biggest priorities being to keep our programs free for Leelanau County teens and families. We have a modest4.png line item dedicated to professional development, which allows us to ensure our staff is trained in CPR/AED and mental health first aid.
Rotary Charities’ Learning Fund is the only reason we could provide three other crucial learning opportunities to our staff in the last year, which have all significantly supported our staff’s ability to navigate challenging situations mindfully.

Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) and safeTALK
Our first application to the Rotary Charities’ Learning Fund was to cover the costs of ASIST and safeTALK, led by local nonprofit Kiersten’s Ride, which we hosted not only for our own staff but for 37 other community members. These training sessions taught us how to identify when someone was thinking of suicide, gave us the language to ask directly if an individual is thinking of suicide, and showed us specific ways that we can intervene to keep that person safe from suicide. 

The skills we learned through ASIST and safeTALK are skills our staff regularly has to employ with our students and community at large and I imagine the same is true for the 37 other individuals who participated. It is not an overstatement to say that this training has saved lives in our region. 

The Flourish Lab
The Flourish Lab is an online professional growth experience designed specifically for out-of-schooltime professionals. Our staff was able to self-pace through a curriculum made to empower the individuals who consistently show up for young adults away from school and away from home. Our staff had a variety of takeaways from this experience but the most valuable was the emphasis placed on self-care. 

It is not uncommon for youth-focused professionals to feel drained and defeated, especially amidst the mental health concerns surrounding teens today. The Flourish Lab emphasized the importance of giving ourselves grace and how that practice is likely to influence our interactions with students and coworkers in the most positive way. Our team has since worked to implement self-care practices throughout their weeks, such as going on walks, reflecting with coworkers, and being transparent with one another on our own mental health. Staff have cited an increased capacity to support students and families through crisis. 

Michigan Afterschool Association Conference3.png
The Michigan Afterschool Association Conference gathered out-of-schooltime professionals across Michigan to convene skills and troubleshoot universal challenges. The event featured dozens of speakers with practical lessons on a variety of topics. 

Several speakers at the MAA Conference spoke on the importance of parent engagement and shared ideas to make involvement for families more accessible. We know anecdotally and through numerous studies that students with more involved parents experience fewer mental health problems ( So, in the 2024-2025 academic year, LIFT’s Program Coordinators are planning to incorporate activities into our afterschool program that teens can then pack up, take home, and recreate with their parents. We will also be increasing communication with parents and are planning weekend events that include family members. 


An Amazing Exception

As the individual on our team who focuses on fund development, I can’t express enough how rare it is to find a funder willing to dedicate funds to something that would otherwise be labeled as ‘overhead.’ Rotary Charities is committed to long-term change because they understand the importance of investing in the nonprofit’s boots-on-the-ground individuals. 

Be it the ripple or butterfly effect, this investment in our staff has not only multiplied to positively impact the mental health of our students and their families but also our school districts and communities. We are so grateful to Rotary Charities for having the wisdom and insight to invest in empowering changemakers through education. 


About the Author
Audrey Sharp (2).pngAudrey Sharp received her Bachelor's Degree in Spanish and International Studies from the University of Michigan in 2015. After graduating, Audrey lived abroad in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua for three years, teaching English to children living in underserved communities. She is the Associate Director of LIFT and The Friendship Community Center and now lives in Cedar with her fiance, Alex, and their dog, Sage. 


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