Marissa Kenney knew she had to do something, anything.
Last summer, as she prepared to begin her senior year at Central Valley High School, she lost a close friend to suicide.
Another friend of Kenney’s struggles with depression almost every day.
“I will tell him to text me, to tell me something good,” Kenney said. “Then sometimes we go into some difficult conversations.”’
By then, Kenney had realized that too many of those tough conversations weren’t happening – at Central Valley and every other school in Spokane.
“I knew that something had to happen, taking those thoughts and making something happen,” Kenney said.
But to break the silence, Kenney – “a great listener,” according to CV counselor Heidi Averett – needed to overcome her own shyness and make others listen.
“She came to me at the beginning of the year and talked about her concerns about mental health issues,” Averett said.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Kenney, whose inspiration was followed by perspiration that included a few trips to the paint department at Lowe’s.
“Actually, a lot of trips,” said Kenney, who brought home a couple of thousand paint samples from every color in the palette – happy colors, including her favorite blue and yellow.
Colors that would bring out the best in her classmates, Kenney hoped.
“To me this was a way to bring awareness of mental health in a way that’s more accessible to more people,” Kenney said.
With some help from classmates and inspiration from teacher Dennis Mitchell – “He really helped me get out of my comfort zone,” Kenney said – she organized four assemblies, one for each class at CV, in the school theater last December.
“This cause really inspired me,” Kenney said. “I wouldn’t have done this a year ago, but I got some confidence by running for ASB secretary – which is interesting because I’m really bad at typing.”
However, she’s very good at blowing away the stereotype of blasé teenagers who are reluctant to share their feelings – even joyful ones.
“Tell me something good,” she asked each class.
By themselves, the notes were simple: “Candy!” and “Hamburgers” and “Movies.”
Together they were profound, with powerful messages about the joy of life – 2,000 of them from every student at Central Valley, mounted by Kenney onto a 9-by-12 foot board.
“She’s the kind of student that comes along once in a career, someone who will step up and make a difference for so many students,” said Mitchell, who teaches English at CV and considers himself “really fortunate that she asked me to speak at the assemblies.”
“It’s been fun to watch, to see how she’s taken this passion for others and taken it through the system and making the school get behind it,” Mitchell said.
Five months later, the board is still on display in the cafeteria, a living legacy on the meaning of life.
“It was really amazing to see students walk by, and to see the messages of all the things that are good in people’s lives,” Mitchell said.
Kenney isn’t sure what to do with the giant message board.
“I might try to take it home,” she said.
By this fall Kenney will be gone, too, to Western Washington University and the pursuit of a degree in education or mental health counseling.
“I’m really conflicted right now,” Kenney said. “I’ve always wanted to do something to help people feel better.”
If that’s to be her legacy, Kenney is off to a good start.
Her project keeps giving – to the school, the community and to Kenney herself.
“It’s easier to say ‘Tell me something good’ instead of saying ‘I’m really struggling,’ ” Kenney said. “But as long as you go on to have that important and difficult conversation, it doesn’t matter how you approach it.”
“And since then I’ve had a lot of people message me out of the blue and say, ‘Tell me something good.’ ”
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