The students on Franklin High School’s robotics team are natural problem solvers, but for this group of teens, their desire to find solutions goes beyond troubleshooting their own robot.
Members of Franklin’s FIRST robotics team were honored earlier this month with an award for their work compiling and distributing mental health resource packs at robotics competitions to spread information about adolescent mental health.
The award, which they took home at Battle of the Bay, an off-season robotics competition in Alton, was for “gracious professionalism,” the first robots’ term for helping others succeed and showing respect for each other and the community.
“We live in Franklin in a community with a lot of struggles, especially mental health struggles,” said team senior Pierre Gilot, team leader. “This is a good thing we can do, something people in the community can look at and say, ‘Wow, that’s nice.'” “Something people can be proud of and that can help the community.”
The team, which has about 14 members this year, began making mental health packages in 2020 when the pandemic first hit. Each package is a Ziplock bag containing a squishy fidget toy, resource leaflets containing number of crisis centers and hotlines and mental health fact sheets. In competitions, a team keeps a basket of packages at their workstation, and during free moments they go around handing them out to the other attendees.
Packages were popular. At an event last year, students said they handed out 200 packages in a 90-minute period, and they should have gotten more. Sometimes they meet people at competitions who talk about their psychological struggles. Last school year, at a competition with about 40 teams from across New England, students learned that three separate teams had a former teammate who had committed suicide.
Safety team lead student Savona Slocum says mental health should be considered a component of team safety.
“Normally when you think of safety, you think of tripping and falling and getting first aid,” Slocum said. But we choose to stand up for mental health, because one in five teens show mental health concerns and only 50% get the appropriate treatment they need. We want people to know that it’s OK to not be well and we want them to be more comfortable reaching out to them if they need help themselves or helping someone in need to get the help they need.”
Mental health is an important topic for many team members. For sophomore Harrison Kaplan, whose cousin died by suicide, this is a way to offer support to others who may be suffering.
“This could save someone else from having the same thing happen to them,” Kaplan said.
Mental health packages are far from the first community service project the robotics team has taken on. During the 2018-2019 school year, Club created Karma Korner from Franklin High, a free, anonymous supply room filled with donated clothes, toiletries, and school supplies for students to take away. In the winter, the team collects coats to supply students who need them.
“One of the biggest things we try to instill in our students is that your bot is like 40% of what FIRST is about,” said Assistant Pro Leda Guillotte, Club Adviser. “FIRST is all about developing STEM and soft skills that they don’t get inside the classroom. They learn to write action plans, do safety plans, how to get along with people, communicate and do outreach, and create impactful, long-term relationships within their team’s family and communities. “
The students said they know of some robotics teams from well-funded schools that travel to volunteer in other countries. Team Franklin feel they can make a huge difference in their town.
“Unfortunately we don’t have the funds for that,” explained Matthew Nason, the team’s co-captain. “So we’re doing it in the community so we can still help.”
With the help of the Franklin Savings Bank, the team purchases a washer and dryer for the school, so that the students can do their own laundry if they need to.
The team has also been the driving force behind the addition of six new STEM classes at Franklin High School, including Computer Science, Manufacturing, and Machine Tool Math.
The team has already set its sights on its next endeavor: raising money to purchase an automated external defibrillator (AED) to bring to competitions, and getting first aid certification for team members. They are looking for a donor who is willing to cover half of the costs of the AED, while collecting money for the other half. Franklin manager Dan Legalo agreed to cover the costs of the team’s certification.
“It’s a robotics team, but communication is important to us,” said Pierre Gilot. “As we’ve seen over the years, the small changes we’ve made in Franklin have affected the entire Lake District. It’s something we thought we could do to better ourselves and the community.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline You can call at any time by calling 988.
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