Suicide. Insecurity. Self-Esteem. And the power of communication. Group 11 – Decorah, Iowa Teens!

beccafinal

leahfinal

teressafinal

oliviafinal

rebeckafinal

mylafinal

decorahgroupandi

the girls and I.


decorahgroupandles

the girls and Leslie.

“I am so excited to be able to be talking to you about the wonderful things you are doing! I just wanted to ask you a few questions and if you have anything extra that you think might be helpful, feel free to let me know. I just want to know how/why you started doing this? What made you get inspired? How has your life been affected since you began this project? I’m really interested in the entire idea behind it and hope to hear from you soon!”

And so began my interaction with a 17-year-old high school student in Decorah, Iowa.
What began as simple research for Becca’s end-of-year presentation on the subject of self-esteem soon resulted in the apparent need for the Raw.Honest.Loved. Project to travel across the country, from its base in Tacoma, WA, to six female students in the small town of Decorah, population 8,000…give or take a handful.

Why Decorah? Why Becca, Leah, Teressa, Olivia, Rebecka, and Myla?

Becca reached out to me in December of 2014 for this assistance with her presentation. We exchanged emails, I explained to her why this project started in the first place…we talked about the subject of bullying, and how this project has had an effect on how we view ourselves and how we view others. How those who participate tend to become more open as people, less judgmental of others, with a renewed sense of self-worth – how insecurities lose their power. We planned to FaceTime soon and really talk about a few of these things, instead of just emailing.

And then January 13th, 2015 happened. 

Jason, Adrian & Raidyn.

Jason, Adrian & Raidyn.

Raidyn Culp became a victim of suicide. Raidyn was fourteen years old. He was the only child of a friend. A friend of twenty years. Adrian was pregnant with Raidyn at the same time that I was pregnant with my daughter, Ravyn, fifteen years ago. We hadn’t remained necessarily close with each other over the years, but we were also not separated by much. The news of Raidyn’s death gutted me. Immediately, a couple of friends and I went to be by Adrian’s side. We cried and laughed and cried some more. We listened. We spoke of the heartache that lies in all of the unanswered questions…

I was due to respond to another of Becca’s emails around this time. I found myself kind of hiding from life for about two weeks and didn’t know quite how to function as a normal person again. If there is anything that my friends and family know about me, however, it is that I am an open book. I lay my heart out; I take chances that others aren’t going to stomp on it. I would rather share the deepest feelings that are at my core than have you wonder why I’m acting a certain way. It is how I work. It is how I interact. It is how I function. This was no different. I needed to share with Becca what had just happened, as I had sort of disappeared. And so I did. Here is where life took a turn…

Becca responded with what would be the most heartbreaking news: “Our town knows the feeling of loss. My freshman year we lost a girl named Melody in a car accident. The following year, a boy died from a town nearby, but he was well known here. A few months later, a girl in the grade below me committed suicide. The next year, a girl in our grade and a boy who had graduated two years before both committed suicide. This year nobody.. but the feeling that it might happen anytime is very great. Our community is one giant family. We are such a small town and everyone knows each other. What you are doing is bringing so many people together.”  (***EDIT***It was pointed out to me afterward that one of these girls’ perceived suicide was not that, but, a very unfortunate accident. I understand the importance of noting that for her friends and family.)

WHAT??! I know suicide is a problem, but, three suicides in their small community in a matter of less than two years?? I began really reflecting. I graduated from high school almost twenty years ago. If I looked back and three people from my high school community had committed suicide SINCE we’ve graduated high school, I would consider that too many. In TWENTY YEARS. So, this news just slowly tore a hole in my heart.

And then on March 5th, it got worse…

I received another email from Becca: “This project now means even more to me than it ever has. On Sunday I was informed a friend of mine from a different town had committed suicide.”

Tears.

I couldn’t believe how my heart was breaking for this girl.

“We Snapchatted a few times recently. The other day I sent him a snap chat that was never opened and now it never will be and now I know why.”

………..

“The moment my stepdad’s mom told me, I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to. I cried, a lot. At first I thought I was being over emotional because we haven’t been close lately, but that’s just the thing. People don’t realize how many people they affect, along with others not realizing how much the people around them actually affect themselves either. The past week this is all I have been able to think about. I hope that through this project I can teach others about their effect on themselves and others and how important relationships are. Everything you are doing is very helpful and I appreciate all the time you have given me.”

What in the world had I done that was helpful?!?!  I felt the opposite. I felt helpless. The hole in my heart grew and I couldn’t digest what she was going through.

Becca and I were able to FaceTime fairly quickly after that email. Seeing her (sort of in person) endeared her to me even more. Where I thought I cared for her before, now I saw her personality, I listened to the inflections in her voice, I read the heartbreak on her face. This girl and I would be forever connected.

Soon after this, I spoke with my dear friend Leslie. We have been friends for twenty years…Leslie is very close to Adrian. She had been spending countless hours at Adrian’s, comforting her after the loss of Raidyn. We spoke about Becca, about Decorah and the surrounding community, and we knew that something needed to be done. Leslie shocked me by suddenly saying, “You need to go there. You need to take this project to them.” The second the words came out of her mouth, I knew she was right. I wasn’t sure how to go about it, but, I was determined to figure it out.

Things began to snowball…into the best, largest, most perfect snowball ever. On March 27th, I asked Becca if she would be interested in getting a group together…she was at first very hesitant, as she had been experiencing many changes in the dynamics of her friend relationships of late. Typical high school stuff. As she thought about it, though, she got more and more excited to do this. I thought this group may happen sometime in the next few months or so. As these girls were completing high school and would be going off to college, we realized there was an impetus to do this group much sooner than we thought, however. In a matter of days, a group was formed.

Meanwhile, I had been updating followers of the project online, regarding Becca and our interaction. I knew people in my community already cared deeply about her and what she was going through. I decided to put that positive energy out into the Universe and see if we could all band together to make this group happen. Let me tell you, my community is amazing. These people came through and paid via GoFundMe for us to get to Iowa. These people cared enough about these girls and the struggles they were having…these girls they had never met in this town they had never heard of. I love all of these people so much.

This group took place on Sunday, April 27th. Exactly ONE MONTH from the point in which I asked Becca if she’d even be interested in forming a group.

Anyone who has been involved in a group knows that you come into it with a certain level of nervousness…a certain amount of awkwardness. Really not knowing what to expect. Imagine how these girls must have been feeling…why in the world was this blue-haired woman coming across the country to their super small town with her friend and her equipment in tow?? Why did she find it important to do this with them?? That level of nervousness was apparent in the immediate energy surrounding us. As happens in every group, however, this soon faded. With the first insecurity read, you could feel the apprehension melt away. Becca began reading and the room came together. The understanding, the shock at how much they could all relate to what she was saying…it was powerful.

The evening went on to reveal the pattern I had been heartbroken to see over the last month, as they sent their insecurities to me…THEY WERE ALL. THE. SAME. Not enough. Never enough. Not important. NOT ENOUGH.

The discussion began to unfold. We talked about the loss they have experienced in their community. I think the saddest part for me at that point was realizing how commonplace loss had become for them. They spoke of it in a way that seemed separated. Surely a mechanism in protecting oneself, but, it hit home for me. And then they really started to share their feelings…and they were angry.

Teressa had recently earned her Gold Award with Girl Scouts after becoming concerned with the suicide rate among young people. She did much research in and out of the community and produced a website that can be found here. She shared that there were high schools in surrounding towns that had experienced multiple suicides over the last fifteen years. 7 in one town, 9 in another…etc. As we spoke about this, all of the girls began to get fired up. We spoke slightly about bullying, but what they really wanted to focus on was the pressures they are under as teens. I don’t want to pick on their high school, as it is just one among many high schools that may be missing something important here, but this needs to be discussed. The girls spoke about how they have many supportive teachers, but, there are so many overall school pressures: about awards there for being 4-sport athletes, about awards for many giant academic achievements…about how, if you’re not measuring up, if you may not be able to succeed in all of these various avenues, you may get lost along the way. You may get swept under the rug a bit. The focus is on the achievers. The focus is on what makes the school look good. Test scores! Sports! Grades! College prospects!

And then a child does get lost along the way. And, for whatever reason…be it an inability to measure up to the high standards and expectations, mental illness, bullying; a combination of all?…they find it easier to escape their life. To end it. And the school sends a standard letter out to parents, in effect: “‘So-and-so’ passed away on ‘such-and-such’ day, etcetera…” and encourage the parents to maybe talk to their kids about it…

This is where I get enraged a bit. High school is COMMUNITY for these teens. Yes, the responsibility lies with us as parents to discuss everything with our teens, but, when a death happens among their community…a community that we as parents can only slightly be a part of…should it not be discussed THERE?? Where is the assembly to discuss suicide? Where are the classes that focus on the topic? Why must the teens seek out a counselor in order to discuss this? Maybe one in twenty teens is compelled to actually do that. WHY ISN’T IT A TOPIC THAT IS DISCUSSED? Are we treating it like we once treated (sometimes still do) the topic of sex? Maybe if we don’t mention it, they won’t do it…

Well, I call bullshit.

I’m tired of this.

And I’m tired of talking about suicide and having numbers thrown at me. I’m tired of words like “percentages”. I’m tired of statements like, “Well, actually that’s pretty low compared to the national average.” The fact that we even have to talk about a “national average” when it comes to the subject of children taking their own lives…that instantly feels like I swallowed an anvil. It makes a giant pit in my stomach and I find it hard to breathe.

Don’t you find it hard to breathe?

It’s time for a change.

When visiting the lovely town of Decorah, I had many citizens there ask me what brought us to town. And I told them. I told them all of this in not as many words. And they reacted. They were happy to hear that we were there for that reason. They agreed that this is a huge problem. They also wondered aloud why this isn’t a topic that is discussed. And they endeared themselves and their town to Leslie and I for life. This is a special place. And, because of them, I get to write this blog. And my community has grown. And the girls’ community has grown. And these lovely ladies will forever be a part of our lives. I am indebted to both those here in Washington that cared enough to get us to Iowa, and to those in Decorah that made us feel right at home. Especially to these six. You are forever family to us, Becca, Leah, Teressa, Olivia, Rebecka, and Myla. Thank you to you ladies for being so brave and honest, and to your parents for raising such AMAZING, inspiring, selfless individuals. Here are your stories.

***Becca and I were privileged enough to be interviewed on Iowa Public Radio last week regarding all of this. You can listen to that interview here: Building Self-Esteem Through Photography (Thank you SO MUCH to Iowa Public Radio – to Charity Nebbe & Emily Woodbury for deciding this was an important enough subject to talk about! Thank you to Craig Steuer for alerting them to the project!)

beccains

Becca’s words ~ “Justsomegirlll_ is my name on twitter and Instagram. I chose this name when I first started my twitter, when I was about 11 years old. Ever since I made it, the name stuck. Most people can hear the name and relate it back to me, but nobody knows the reason I chose it.
I chose the name because I truly believe that I am just that. There is nothing special about me, I’m just ordinary. I am an average to below-average girl who is average to below-average at everything and that’s all I will ever be. People will jokingly use the name to address me. While they think they are being funny, it’s actually just a reminder of what I hate most about myself. I’ve proven this insecurity to be true, which is why it makes it even harder. When friends and I have got into conversations about topics like insecurities, mine, being just another person, has been brought up. This then leads to them trying to prove me wrong and failing. Sure, they can name a few things I’m okay at, but that’s it. I know I will never be the best at something because that is nearly impossible – there will always be someone who is better. My point of proving them wrong is not to think I need to be better than everyone at things, but the fact that I am just average or below average at everything and anything I do. Most peoples’ twitter names are just their names or something catchy; however, mine is my biggest insecurity.”

(I asked the girls a few other questions, too…)

What do you think is the main issue teens have to contend with these days?

“Not being enough. Everyday, all day, teens struggle with the competition of being the smartest, prettiest, strongest, quickest, etc. From school to work to sports, everything is a competition.”

What has been your toughest moment to get through during your time in high school?

Losing so many people that when someone who actually does care comes along, it’s close to impossible to actually let them in and believe someone could actually care for a person who was left by so many other people. It makes it hard not to believe that maybe I am just an awful person.”

What advice would you give other teens starting high school?

“No matter how bad things seem to get, how much you struggle with grades, how many people end up changing, life gets better and the people who truly care will always be there.”

Becca’s friends and family:

“Rebecca is a very outgoing young lady. She loves to work with others. She is very helpful to all. She is a very positive person. Looking to help others when possible. She is strong headed too. She knows what she wants and how she wants to do it.” – Wayne

“Becca,
You are an extremely genuine and amazing friend. I remember when I first moved here any didn’t have many friends, but you always would talk to me and we have remained close friends ever since! This is something I admire about you. No matter what anyone else thinks, you will always be kind and be a friend to those who have none or are suffering. You see beauty in everyone and it’s clear you believe everyone deserves to see it in themselves. I love how caring of a person you are. I love how you can always tell if I’m feeling a little down, or more happy than usual, and act in a way which makes me feel better. You have an amazing ability to read people. Thank you for being an amazing friend for all of these years!
Rebecka”

“Rebecca has so many great traits that she doesn’t even realize. She’s intelligent, beautiful, and a great friend to have. I can tell her anything and know she will keep my secrets. She tells the truth and always makes me feel better when I need someone to cheer me up. She has gorgeous hair and can wear any outfit and look amazing. She has her own style and is her own person.” – Alicja

“Becca you are absolutely wonderful! From the first time we met I felt like I could really open up to you and be myself around you! Not only are you crazy beautiful, you have a wonderful personality and bring so much joy to my life. I picked a couple awesome traits that you have and wrote them down to make you smile if you are ever having a hard day.
You are so real and I appreciate that so much about you, it’s so hard to find someone who is genuine and who says what they feel. I love how you aren’t afraid to be who are and I can always count on you to be 100% honest.
You’re such a fun person to be around! You always have positive things to say and you always have a smile on your face, even on the hard days. I admire your strength so much – it makes me stronger to see you push through the hard things in your life and inspires me to be strong.
I also admire your independence, your persistence and the hard work that you do for yourself and the people around you. You honestly care so much about your loved ones and put so much time and energy into keeping them happy! You are selfless and it’s incredible to see someone who genuinely cares so much about the well-being of others.
You are one of the few people who accepts me even with my weirdness and quirks…that means so much to me and shows that you are accepting of others, which just adds to the list of awesome qualities that you have. I hope that we can always be here to uplift each other and eat great sushi together 😉
LOVE YOU, Myla”

“Rebecca,

You are an amazing individual and I feel so blessed to have been given you to guide. You are such a remarkably beautiful, very loving, caring, smart young lady. You are so insightful, talented and giving. All the accomplishments that you have made up until now are remarkable. Although I gave you guidance in your middle school years and pushed you to get your homework done, I have not had to in your high school years. You have taken the reigns and flown, soared and greatly surpassed my expectations all on your own. I can’t wait to see you continue to grow and mature over the years.
I know there have been times when we have not always seen eye to eye but in time I hope that you understand why I did or said what I did. I know you’re an amazing young lady and very smart but sometimes as a teen it is easy to go with the crowd. Sometimes I think that you have, but you knew your boundaries and knew when to bow out.
Just please don’t shut me out. Keep me in the loop and please share with me your hopes and dreams. I do love and care about you so much and I think sometimes you don’t know just how much. Please know that you can always come to me and talk. If you just need an ear, just say, “Mom, please don’t talk just listen.”
My fear for you is that you don’t appreciate yourself as much as you should and you don’t have high self-esteem. You sell yourself short and allow your self-worth to be measured by others. Stand tall, baby, and know that you are worth far more then I think you see your self-worth to be. I know it’s hard to see past what others do or say sometimes. Your peers can be so cruel, both the boys and girls, and sometimes that influences your decisions.

Take the time now to have fun at college. Study hard, get involved in as many activities you feel that you can handle without jeopardizing your studies and set your goals. Where do you plan to be in the next 5 to 10 years? What do you want to do, be and achieve in life? Set your sights and don’t let go, ‘cause you can do it. You, my lovely child, can do and be anything in this world that you want to be.

I love you so much!

Love,
Mom”

leahins

Leah’s words ~ “I have many insecurities, but the one that bugs me the most is never feeling like I am enough. I am very involved in school and have friends from multiple friend groups, but I always find myself asking to join other people. I am never the one being asked to do something. And when I am with others, I constantly feel like a bother and a hindrance to them. A “best friend” at the time even told me it was a chore for her to make me feel like I was included when we hung out. Ever since then, my self-esteem has become even worse. I wish I didn’t feel so unworthy of people’s time or attention. I wish that just for once I could feel like I am good enough again.”

What do you think is the main issue teens have to contend with these days?

I think the main issue teens deal with today is pressure. I mean sometimes your classes are hard enough in the first place, right? And on top of your studies you still have pressure to maintain a social life both at home and with your classmates. Teens are so influenced by media these days that they feel pressure to have a “perfect” image. They feel pressure to act, walk, or laugh a certain way in order to fit and be accepted by others. This is just plain stressful and ridiculous. It’s energy wasted! I wish that teens knew being unique and true to their own personality is way more interesting to others and creates a more enjoyable life.”

What has been your toughest moment to get through during your time in high school?

Realizing the fact that people change. I have gone through all of my school years never having a set group of friends. Sometimes I find this enjoyable. I don’t have to worry about starting a new class or going to lunch by myself since I have an array of friends from different “cliques”. But even though I remind myself that I shouldn’t worry, I still fret about going new places. I become anxious wondering if I am going to fit in. And with moving to college this coming fall, I am afraid of this even more. After my best friend quit talking to me just a few months ago, I constantly think about what-ifs. What if we run into each other on campus? What if she’s telling people things about me that aren’t true? What if I don’t have a best friend at college? What if I lose a friend like this again? What if I really wasn’t worthy of her time or friendship? Thoughts like these are always nagging at me. I know friends aren’t always there for you when you need them. But I take these experiences as a way to learn. I will always be there for any friend of mine.”

What advice would you give other teens starting high school?

Be your own best friend. People will try to shake you and people will push you to your limit until you can’t take it anymore, but how strong you stay is what makes you. And through all of that, your friends will come and go. Possibly even your best friend. But know there are people who love you and you are not alone. Even at your darkest and scariest times, remember there are others who may be looking up to you for the same reasons you think you aren’t good enough. When you feel broken, remember that it’s always darkest before the dawn. Do for yourself the same that you would do for a friend who is hurting.”

Leah’s friends and family:

“Gorgeous
Sweet
Caring
Selfless
Smart
Talented
Amazing :)” – Maddie

“Dear Leah,
You are amazing. Your fun spirit, smiles, and laughter are a joy to be around. You’re funny. You’re supportive, caring, accepting, and generous. You are wise, courageous, thoughtful, smart, talented, spunky, and unique. You are absolutely beautiful on the outside and inside! You inspire me. I love you always!” – Lucas

“Leah likes to offer help all the time to help me farm, especially with the livestock. I love her “street smarts ” sense of a lot of outdoor things. She is such a capable person in so many things.” – Alan

“I love her unconditionally. She has a loving good heart. She is kind, thoughtful, considerate, sensitive, and good-willed. She cares for her family, friends, animals, and our environment. I admire her strength to help others, to try to help herself, and to continue forging ahead. I appreciate her humor, spirit, spunk, and sense of adventure. I admire her for her courage to not compromise her integrity. She is strong and determined. She is beautiful inside and out, and is a delight to see grow up and gain poise and confidence.” – Michele

teressainsTeressa’s words ~ “I think my biggest insecurity would be that I am not perfect. I understand that nobody can be perfect, but I try so hard to do everything that I can to be the best that I can be. For some reason, every failure, even a small one, makes me so upset. I want to be good at everything I do, and I want people to look at me as someone who accomplishes things. I am always trying to get the best grades, work a lot, look good, have everyone like me, and earn every award available to me. After everything, it still seems like I do not do enough to be the person that I want to be.”

 

 What do you think is the main issue teens have to contend with these days?

“I definitely agree with a lot of people who say that media is a huge problem. Also, other girls definitely make girls feel bad about themselves. So many times it is not enough to just be yourself, you have to be like everyone else. A lot of things turn into a competition. Girls feel like they have to be prettier or funnier or smarter for other people to like them. Also, the media just further contributes to making girls feel like they can never measure up to the girls in magazines or on TV. Overall, girls just feel like they have too much to live up to especially in the physical looks category.”


What has been your toughest moment to get through during your time in high school?

“My toughest time in high school is probably right now. I am very uncertain about what I want to do with my life and am having some difficulties making plans for next year. Honestly, I am just very stressed.”


What advice would you give other teens starting high school?

“Have fun. Don’t take anything too seriously. Take chances. Try everything once. It is so important to just be yourself, find people who care about you and do what you want. Grades are important, but don’t stress over them. Just work as hard as you can, and accept that it is not possible to do everything. High school will be some of the best years of your life. Even though some times will be hard to get through, the great moments you have will make it all worth it.”

Teressa’s friends and family:

“Teressa, you’ve been my best friend for what seems like forever. You’ve always made me want to be a better person. You’re definitely the smartest person I know, and I love the way you use your knowledge to help others out. You’re not only kind and generous, but you’re also down to earth. Your perseverance is admirable and someday I hope to take the punches as well as you do. I want to thank you for always being a great friend to me.” – Mckenzie

“Teressa has been my good friend since the middle of middle school. Regardless of what people think, she had the best style of clothing and was an amazing trendsetter. She has the highest goals and strives to achieve them. Her dedication to being the best is inspiring and it’s amazing to watch. She has learned and grown so much in the past four years. The amount of issues she has pushed through is amazing. She has thrown herself into school and it has shown. I hope her future is bright and I can’t wait to see what she becomes. She is stunning, strong and beautiful.” – Talia

“Dear Teressa,
I know that you struggle with feeling accomplished and feeling significant. You know that I do not understand you blight. I do not understand this because you are the most ambitious and determined person I know. You have accomplished more in high school than some people do in four years of college. You have more college credits than Dave (my roommate) will after a year of education. To polish your work off, you have done so impeccably. You have maintained a 4.0 GPA while taking all these classes. You are destined for greatness in whatever area of life that you apply yourself. I wish that you could see yourself in the eyes of another. Teressa is a determined, willful person. When she sees a wrong or a task she will tenaciously pursue her objective. The best side of Teressa is that she easily can relax and be a goofy person <—-[you should use this word at least one point in your process describing her, she will love it :)]. She can go from dead serious to complete comedian, keeping everyone on their toes. Teressa is the whole package.” – Nick

“Teressa is a very motivated young lady. From early on, she has challenged herself by setting high goals and striving to reach them. Even though pushing herself and working very hard, she has managed to achieve a balance between school, work, family, and friends. She has managed to stay well grounded even with the pressures of being a teen and especially with the recent stress of trying to figure out future plans. She is bright, beautiful inside and out, and is able to see the positive in everyone.” – Tiffany

“Her willingness and determination to go the extra mile. Her inner and outer beauty. Finally challenging herself to be the best she can be!” – Dan

Oliviains

Olivia: “From the time I was a little girl, I’ve always tried to hide any flaws that I have. I constantly compare myself to others. I’ve always wanted to be the best but I feel like I can never do it. I feel like I fall short of everything. There is always someone nicer, smarter, or funnier than I am. I feel like people look at me and see all of the things I am not. I’ve been in some bad places. I’ve gone overboard while trying to make myself better. A few years ago I stopped eating in an effort to make myself better, I’ve pushed myself to spend hours at the library to get better grades, I’ve stared in the mirror for hours on end and asked myself why I can never be the best. My biggest insecurity is that I am never enough.”

 

What do you think is the main issue teens have to contend with these days?

Teenagers have a lot on their minds in this day and age. We are just expected to be one thing. We should be great daughters, sisters, friends, athletes, students, readers, writers, speakers, workers and so much more. With all of those thoughts flying through our heads there’s a strong possibility that we feel we feel we fall short in some category. It’s hard not to compare yourself to others.”


What has been your toughest moment to get through during your time in high school?

I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve come home crying to my mother about not feeling adequate. Girls are cruel. There’s no if ands or buts about it. Even my friends have tried to tear me down before. Some days I’ve really felt as if I was alone in this world.”


What advice would you give other teens starting high school?

“It has taken me a really really long time to realize this…Everyone feels insecure in their own ways. A lot of the time when a girl says something catty about you, it’s because she is feeling bad about herself. Don’t let anyone have the power to make you feel bad about yourself. You are the only one who truly knows your own thoughts and intentions.”

Olivia’s friends and family:

“Olivia, you are one of the sweetest people I know. I’ve always admired how humble you are. You take bad situations and turn them around, by adding humor to the situation. You’re talented and passionate, and honestly I’ve never met someone who walks the line between bubbly and annoying so well! You’re optimistic and inspiring, and definitely genuine. You’re beautiful and I love and appreciate your friendship.” – Mckenzie

“Olivia Claire,
Hi Beautiful! I was asked to write a letter to you about all the amazing qualities you have, and honestly, I’ve had a hard time figuring out where to start! There are so many inspiring qualities that I’ve seen in you over the years. You exude beauty, kindness, happiness, and a certain warmth. People are drawn to your sweet smile that lights up a room in seconds. You make people comfortable and because of this, you’re the girl that everyone wants to know and be close to. You are truly a good person deep down in your soul and that’s something that isn’t very common anymore! Focus on never losing that.
You are such a smart person! I’ve watched you become a driven, hard working young woman and I couldn’t be more proud. It amazes me how much effort and energy you put into everything you do. Having gone through cheerleading, school, and work with you, I know that there’s nothing you can’t do! I’m excited for you to get to experience college. I feel like you will really get your chance to blossom, grow, and shine when you enter that next chapter! Not that you don’t shine already! 😉 There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that you will be beyond successful in everything you do!
I know you have your insecurities. Everyone does! But I want you to know without a doubt that you are absolutely perfect! You’re strong and beautiful, and if anyone tells you differently, they’re wrong. And stupid. 😛 I want you to always remember that you have so many people who are unconditionally on your side. No matter what’s happening in life there are always people to turn to and ways to make it better. I am always just a phone call or text away if ever you forget your worth.
As you take on the next few big steps in your life, know that you are loved. You are beautiful. You are strong, and inspiring, and flawless! I love you, baby girl! Never stop being you! ❤
Sydney”
“Olivia is a very important part of my life, and it’s sometimes hard to say these things in person. She is someone that you can be open and honest with, and probably knows me better than I know myself. She is the most dedicated person I know, which only motivates me to be better myself. It’s difficult to see her be hurt from what she doesn’t show or talk about. However, that will not distract her from striving. She is full of energy and is an overall lovable person. You are sensitive and bright and altogether beautiful.” – Talia

“Words to describe Olivia…there are so many things that I admire about this young woman. She is outgoing, wise, spirited, trustworthy, determined, loving, fair, intuitive, kind, respectful, beautiful, insightful, energetic, compassionate, dedicated, efficient, hard-working. Olivia is a great leader due to being motivated, enthusiastic, courteous, honest, dependable, vibrant, and supportive. She will accomplish great things in her future, as she is independent, bright, intelligent, talented, logical, adventurous, warm, generous and brave. I feel so blessed to have a daughter that is so vibrant, affectionate, courageous, vivacious, and so incredibly accomplished. Olivia is so loved by those who know her. And I am so blessed to call her my daughter.” – Heather
rebeckains

Rebecka’s words ~ “I have a nagging insecurity that I am not important. As long as I can remember, I have always felt like the least important person in whatever group setting I am in, whether it be friends, work, or activities. Even today, a time where I have significantly improved on most of my insecurities from early teen years, I feel like I contribute little to nothing and that the group dynamic, whatever it may be, would not change without me. I always find myself saying things and being ignored and doing things without appreciation. While these findings may be figments of my imagination, they are very real to me.”

What do you think is the main issue teens have to contend with these days?

Having to strive for perfection in every aspect of life and then becoming more self-conscious once they realize attaining perfection in every aspect of life is impossible.”


What has been your toughest moment to get through during your time in high school?

I had an awkward time from freshman year to the beginning of sophomore year. I was still pretty new to Decorah and was struggling to make friends (thankfully now I am blessed with the best friends possible, it took time but it was so worth it!), on top of battling a severe eating disorder and anxiety. All of these combined drained everything I had emotionally, mentally, and physically and it definitely hurt my relationships.”


What advice would you give other teen
s starting high school?

“People will always be mean. These people will not get far in life with this attitude and are not people you need in your life. Worry about your own opinion and the opinions of those who care and are looking out for you.”

Rebecka’s friends and family:

“Rebecka is the best friend who I wish I’d had all my life, but showed up just in time when I needed her the most. Now, despite anyone in my life who will walk away from me, I know Rebecka will always be at my side. If I text or call her at 2 am crying, I know she won’t mind. She’s supportive, encouraging, and understands my problems like no one else does. Even if we get in a fight, I know she still loves and cares about me. Even when she doesn’t approve of my decisions, she will still support me, but doesn’t put up with my bad behavior. She lets me know when I’ve messed up and won’t help me justify my mistakes, which I need and appreciate. She keeps my feet on the ground when my head is in the clouds. She’s more than my best friend—she’s my sister, my soul mate (of friendship). I would defend her in any circumstance because I know she would do the same for me. She’s warm and everyone likes her, and those who don’t must not know her very well. She’s witty, clever, and undoubtedly smart. She’s one of the bravest girls I know. Despite all of the struggles that she faces herself, she still puts others first. No matter what she thinks of herself, I know that she is one of the most beautiful, smart, funny, caring girls I know. It breaks my heart that she doesn’t always believe that that is true. She’s responsible, but crazy fun. She’s a beautiful person inside and out, the best kind of friend to have, and she will thrive in whatever she chooses to pursue in life. There’s nothing that I value more than her friendship.” Annalise

“I admire Rebecka’s outgoing personality, her humorous wit, and the way she sticks to her beliefs. Also, I appreciate her love of makeup, clothing, and celebrities as we bond over those greatly. She’s beautiful inside and out and no matter what we do together, I always have a good time with her. I admire her ability to make friends wherever she goes.” – Maddie

“Where do I even begin? Becka moved to Decorah in 8th grade and we have been super close ever since. We have gotten a lot closer as the years have gone by. Our hangouts used to just consist of going to Mabes and eating buffalo chicken wings but our friendship has moved on to bigger and better meals. Now she even makes me mac n’ cheese. That’s true friendship right there.
Becka is the one friend I have had all through high school. I don’t know how many times I have gone to her for support and she knows exactly what to say. Without her I don’t know what I would do. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I have stayed at her house. I mean, I walk in and her dad says, “Welcome home!” With me living so far out of town, she constantly lets me spend the night. This helps me so much more than she could ever imagine. From gas money to just all that driving time that takes away from the sleep I need on nights I have early-bird the next morning, I know I can always count on her. I remember the morning she was leaving for her semester abroad in Sweden last spring, I was not ready for that at all. I went to her house that morning to catch her before she left and I couldn’t help but cry. She kept telling me to stop. When she left, I gave her a small heart locket necklace and she still wears it almost every day. Through losing close to all my friends just earlier this year, Becka stood by me through the whole thing. I think everyone should have a friend like that.

Becka is one of my best friends and I love her to death. Even the tiniest little things can be appreciated; helping me with French, letting me borrow her computer, teaching me how to do makeup, always listening to my rants on bad days, never telling anyone my secrets, the list goes on and on. Becka has constantly been there day or night for me and she always pushes me to be a better person. Our friendship might have started with hot wings and it might have just turned into mac n’ cheese and endless bowls of cereal but the amount of friendship in the middle of all that and the things we have been through truly shows how great of a friend and person she is, and I could never even put into words the appreciation I have for her.” – Rebecca

“Rebecka is incredibly funny – definitely one of the funniest people I know. She is kind and loyal to her friends. She is compassionate and has a strong sense of fairness and justice. She realizes the world is not the place it should be, and she wants to work to make it better. She is more conscious of what is going on in the world than most adults twice her age.
She is a gifted speaker – incredibly articulate for someone so young.
She has a strong sense of self and a healthy self-confidence.
She is a loving daughter who enjoys spending time with and talking to her parents. I have not encountered too many teenagers who seek out their parents’ company. I will miss that when she goes to college.” – Todd

“Dear Rebecka,
In the past year we have become really close and I cannot tell you how thankful I am for that. You are a loyal and supportive friend. But even people around school who are not your friend are drawn to you. You’re confident, hilarious and kind to others. I don’t even know how many people I have heard say that they don’t know you but they would love to. I have no doubt in my mind that you will succeed with flying colors in any endeavor. Thank you for being you.
Olivia”

“Rebecka,
I appreciate your great sense of humor and sassy attitude. I love that you know what you want and go after it. Your love of animals shows that you have a big heart. Of course, you’re also so, so beautiful. I’m proud of how you turned your life around and how you are now helping others do the same. You’re a great role model and an all-around great person.
It’s fantastic that you already know what you want from life: doing what you love with lots of freedom. Go for it!
You are perfect, just the way you are. You look exactly the way you’re supposed to look and have the talents you’re supposed to have. When you smile, the world becomes brighter. Your laugh means all is well in the world.
Dad and I lucked out when we had you. 🙂
Love,
Mamma”
mylains

Myla’s words ~ “My biggest insecurity is probably the feeling I hold inside of myself of not being good enough for the people that I have loved and love. I have had so many falling-outs with people i’ve been close with and they all have ended up saying very cruel things about me. I take all of these things people have said personally because I truly cared about them. No matter what, i will always feel like it was my fault that people left me, and it’s hard to hold all of the negativity projected on to me by these people. When people you love tear you down its very hard not to start believing you really are what they are saying. You start to believe you are a horrible person and it just ends up hurting not only your self-esteem but has a huge impact on how you view yourself as a person.”

What do you think is the main issue teens have to contend with these days?

“I think the biggest issue is probably the amount of time that teens spending cutting each other down. We are all going through the same stuff and it would be so cool if, instead of tearing down those around us, we uplift each other and spread positivity.”

What advice would you give other teens starting high school?

“My advice for people who are starting high school is to take everything a day at a time. Realize that many things will change as you grow and that is totally okay. During high school it’s okay if you fall out of relations with some of your close friends, its bound to happen because everyone is growing up and taking different paths in life. Don’t get too attached to any relationship with a significant other unless it feels 100% right. Know that guys will always be there. Focus on yourself and doing well in school but also have some fun with your friends and go on some cool dates. Make friends that are from all different corners of life and it will help you have a greater appreciation of individuality.”

Myla’s friends and family:

“You are adventurous! You have a great sense of humor. You are strong – in your passions, your dreams, and your opinions. You are loyal, creative, and have great integrity. You are beautiful inside and out!” – Pam

“Brightness, intuitive intelligence, creative, a very good friend and listener, supportive daughter, has an eye for excellence, cuddly. – Mary

“To my little sweetheart,
I am honored that you asked me to take part in this project. I was noticing the last time I saw you how much you have matured since I had seen you previously. I am so proud of the beautiful, thoughtful and compassionate young lady you have become. You are so hard-working and responsible. You are mostly gentle with your little brother. You listen and learn from your big brother. You are a support to your mother. You love your dog and care for animals and nature. You are loving and caring to all, and that is a gift. You are creative and intelligent. You are serious and silly!
I want you to know what an amazing young woman you are. I want you know that you are very loved. I want you to know that you always deserve to be treated with respect. I want you to know what a gift and a joy you are to me, to your family and others. Allow yourself to dream and reach for the stars.
With All of My Love,
Your Aunt Suzy”

“Dear Myla,
I admire you for how caring and understanding you are of those around you. You seem to always be willing to go out of your way for those who are in need of help. I have always appreciated how hard you work in whatever you do and how you always find a way to complete what you start. Another thing that I have always admired is your artistic ability. I think that you got all of the good genes for artistry since I’m still stuck drawing stick figures. Most of all I’m so glad and so honored to call you my sister. Love ya.” – Ames

“Dearest Myla, there are many things that I love about you. You are extremely smart, you are honest, you know how to be real with friends, and you are warm and loving only when it comes from the whole of you. You are never a fake. You are trustworthy and I love that you are open with your mother. You are loyal to your family and pets.” – Kim

 

I asked the girls’ friends and family to answer a couple other questions, as well. (Thank you to all of you for writing in! This project doesn’t work without you.)
Here are their insightful responses: 

What do you think is one of the main issues facing teens today?

“Teens are always constantly comparing themselves to others. They feel that they will never be quite smart enough, or quite pretty enough, or quite good enough for someone else. There’s a struggle for acceptance and a struggle to fit in.” – Annalise

“Negativity among friends and family.” – Wayne

“Insecurity and lack of confidence with the way they appear or act. Also, apathy and ignorance about issues in general.” – Maddie P.

“There’s too much pressure on teens today to be the most skinny, or the prettiest, or the most athletic. People aren’t really encouraged to do what they want to do. Then when they get the courage to do what they love, they can be put down for it.” – Maddie D.

“I think one of the main issues facing teens is separation from nature.” – Tabita

 “Peer pressure to do things that they are unsure of, but, they do anyway because they don’t want to be the odd man out. Sex, drugs, speeding…” – Katarina

 “Self-esteem is definitely a big one. Lots of teens face media and culture that tears down what teens think about themselves, especially girls. The media is so misogynistic and sexist that it keeps girls from thinking of themselves as people, and instead as objects, which is so sad.” – Mckenzie

“I think one of the main issues facing teens today is the pressure to be perfect in so many different areas. I think being on the team is just as accomplished as being in the number 1 or number 2 spot on the team. All members are needed to support number 1 and 2 athletes.” – Heather

 “I believe the main issue is that teens really care too much about what others think. This is a hard biological check that all teens must overcome at some point. The feeling of belonging is of utmost importance to the mental well being of a teen. For these reasons, teens get caught up in what others are doing and thinking. Teens must stay true to themselves.” – Nick

“A wide range of mental health issues (depression, anxiety, eating disorders, etc.)” – Todd

“Peer pressure.” – Pam

“I feel that social media is a major issue in a teen’s life. Because of magazines and TV shows, we all have this idea of what we’re expected to be. We see other girls who have qualities we admire and feel bad that we don’t have that. We are programmed to compare ourselves to others. To feel inadequate when we feel we don’t measure up to someone else. There’s such a slim window of who and what is considered beautiful, when, in all reality, confidence in who you are is what makes us flawless.” – Sydney

“Competitive society” – Mary

“I believe teens must try so hard to be “perfect.” There is so much pressure on them.” – Olivia

“I believe that girls put a lot of pressure on themselves whether it is about their weight, insecurities, or faults. This can lead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and many other issues.” – Talia

“To me, all teens seem to feel like they are not good enough. We live in a society of pressures for success, money, happiness, and togetherness. Through the struggle to achieve these pressures, we become more self-conscious and are filled with the need to achieve the perfect life.” – Rebecka

“I think a big issue is constantly pushing teens to do more, achieve more, and work harder. In Decorah, kids are drilled about the “Decorah Way”. This means doing things well, displaying good sportsmanship, and being a role model. It has also pushed kids to be involved in many activities and groups and to excel in everything that they do. Some kids feel that they can’t do as well and so give up. Teressa has been able to do well academically, but even with taking enough classes to enter college midway through her sophomore year, having a 4.0 GPA, a 33 on her ACTs, her girl scout gold award, and being involved in many other activities as well as working as a CNA and lifeguard, this was not enough to earn herself her dream of making it into an Ivy League college.” – Tiffany

“I think the main issue facing teens today is body image. There’s so many kids and even adults that hate their appearance and body because of what the media portrays as “attractive”.” – Alicja

“One main issue teens face today is media’s negative influence on teen’s worth, self-esteem, body image, and confidence. There’s too much pressure towards growing up too fast in terms of how a young lady should act and what she should do, and how she should look…” – Michele

“Self-doubt, too much self-consciousness, pressure from society and peers.” – Lucas

“Abstinence from sex.” – Alan

“I think one of the main issues facing teens today is the fear of not being accepted or loved by others or not belonging.

Others issues teens are facing include:
Low Self Esteem
Family problems/communication issues
Stress about school, friends, family, sports or activities, future
Depression
Peer pressure to engage in substance use and premarital sex
Bullying” – Suzy

“In today’s society there are countless numbers of impossible expectations set for teens. These expectations are set by family members, media, peers, and even ourselves. When teens inevitably are unable to reach these impossible expectations they feel as though they have let themselves and those around them down. This creates insecurities and a lack of confidence in many teens.” – Ames

“Peer pressure.” – Kim

“Pressure from adults to succeed.” – Dan

 If you are out of high school, what advice would you go back and give yourself?

 I would tell myself that I am far stronger than I think I am, and that the terrible things happening right now won’t matter in a few years. If anything, they’ll have shaped you into a better person. Don’t keep struggling to fit in with your “pretty, popular friends.” They are NOT your friends because a friend doesn’t repeatedly kick someone once they’re already down. Ignore the classmates who call you crazy, because they don’t realize how beautiful your mind is and how blessed you are to be able to feel so deeply. These kids, this school, this town is so insignificant and does not define who you will be. One day, you will find people who deserve and appreciate all the love and friendship you have to give. You do matter, and you are most certainly good enough.” – Annalise

“Be more positive and be more outgoing. Never say you can’t do something. Always try and see what happens.” – Wayne

“Don’t care what others think of you!” – Tabita

“Stay in school. Don’t be too excited about getting married, you have your whole life ahead of you. Plan for the future by saving money, setting goals and following through with those decisions.” – Katarina

“I would give myself the advice to be more involved in activities, clubs, sports, fund-raising etc. I have seen how involved my daughter has been and it has made her so incredibly efficient and so well-rounded as a person.” – Heather

“I believe the main issue is that teens really care too much about what others think. This is a hard biological check that all teens must overcome at some point. The feeling of belonging is of utmost importance to the mental well being of a teen. For these reasons teens get caught up in what others are doing and thinking. Teens must stay true to themselves.” – Nick

“Try to be more comfortable in my own skin and embrace my passions and own my own voice.” – Todd

“What you are experiencing right now will not define the rest of your life!” – Pam

“I would tell myself to embrace who I am. Don’t hide in the shy shell you’ve created over the years. You have every potential to be beautiful and happy if you just let yourself. Also, don’t rely on others to give you reassurance that you’re good enough. Because most of the people you currently surround yourself with will not come through when you need them most. Be strong, be independent, and you will find the people who make you better!” – Sydney

“Be gentle, patient and kind to myself” – Mary

“Well I am almost out of high school…and looking back at my first few years I would give myself a hug and tell little Olivia that everything will turn out for the best. I would tell her not to worry so much.” – Olivia

“I would say to have fun and not take life and school quite so seriously.” – Tiffany

“Take time to think about what I want for myself instead of worrying about pleasing others all the time. Be nice to others, but that doesn’t mean I should let people walk all over me nor do we have to be aggressive. It takes strength to stick to your beliefs, but it’s worth it.” – Michele

“Don’t worry so much about what others think of me; that doesn’t matter. Be myself. Be thankful for my experiences, find and focus on the joyful aspects of everything that comes my way. Make good use of my time; do what I will regret the least in the future. Enjoy the journey.” – Lucas

“Don’t experiment with alcohol.” – Alan

“I was really afraid to make mistakes for fear of looking “Dumb” so I would tell myself that it is OK to make mistakes and that we learn from our mistakes and often grow from our mistakes. I was always my own worst enemy so I would tell myself to look at my strengths rather than my deficits.” – Suzy

“I would tell myself not to worry as much about what other people think.” – Ames

“To be true to myself and keep open communication with my wise mother.” – Kim

“Enjoy every single day.” – Dan

If you are still in high school, what advice would you give others who are starting?

“Stay true to your beliefs while keeping an open mind. High school is where you form your true self and find who your true friends are, but it’s not the end. There is so much more after high school, don’t sweat the small things. Also mental/physical health comes before grades.” – Maddie P.

“Don’t freak out too much, and don’t let what other people say get to you to a point where you constantly are hating on yourself.” – Maddie D.

“Be Yourself! Be a good friend. Trust your instincts. Don’t do things just because other people want you to. These four years do not define you!”

“I would tell high school girls that it is very important not to worry about what others think. The most important opinion is what you think of yourself.” – Olivia

“People are always going to be mean. If someone is judging you or is saying mean things about you, I know it is hard to push it aside. I want you keep in mind that these people will not be going too far in life with that attitude, and if they are behaving that way towards you, they are not at all someone you need in your life. Love yourself first. How you feel about yourself is what matters.” – Rebecka

“Stay away from as much drama as possible and be friends with as many people as you can. Be your own person and be kind to everyone.” – Alicja

Links to past groups can be found here:

Why this project began
Group 1, Part 1
Group 1, Part 2
Group 2, Teens!
Group 3, 55+!
Group 4
Group 5
Group 6
Group 7, Men!
Group 8
Group 9, Moms & Daughters! (featuring Melissa & Lily)
Group 9, Moms & Daughters! (featuring Liz & Caitie)
Group 10 – Couples!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 comments

  1. Jen J · May 4, 2015

    I can relate so much to the things these ladies have said even though there are many miles and many years between us. I can immediately recall what it was like in high school after reading what they’ve written and it hit me how many of the things they wrote about, I’m still struggling with.
    I appreciate the extra questions they took the time to answer. I found Leah’s advice to teens starting high school to be especially powerful and insightful.
    I applaud them for the strength they’re showing to their school and their community by addressing these issues and being a voice for those who may be afraid to speak.
    Such lovely, intelligent and thoughtful young ladies. Your words have power. Thank you for sharing with all of us. Please take care of yourselves and good luck in your new adventures.

  2. Nancy · May 8, 2015

    Alana, thank you so much for this amazing, beautiful project! You see, my son Thomas was a close friend of Raidyn’s. My son was home sick from school that week, but I’ll never forget the call from school on January 14th. How do you tell your son his friend’s mom is now living your worst nightmare? There was grief, worry and even guilt. There are still tears. So I share your anger. Thomas came home from school the following week and told me, “Mom, no one wants to talk about it. At lunch we sit at the same table and Raidyn’s chair is empty. He was there and now he’s not. But it’s like no one even wants to talk about what happened.”

    Thank you so much for doing this!!! If you are looking for your next group, I would love to see you continue this project with Raidyn’s friends. It would bring so much healing. As a mother of a son (I have two girls too) I really worry about boys in general. After reading Boy Code and Raising Cain, I don’t think those fears are unfounded. They really are an emotionally isolated group. That needs to change. Thank you again!

    • alanatphotography · May 8, 2015

      Oh Nancy, my heart breaks for Thomas. 😦 There is no world in which they should know that sort of pain and confusion at that age. I would LOVE to facilitate a group of teen boys…I’ve been wanting to do that for awhile, but found it difficult to round up. If you know some of the boys that would be interested and willing, we will make this happen. I’d like to just continue this subject as a series while I can. Definitely let me know. You can also email me at alanatphotography@gmail.com. Much love to you and to your son!

    • Adrian · May 8, 2015

      Dang. I can’t stop crying. There is a puddle of tears on my desk right now. Thank you so much Nancy. Your right about this being the worst nightmare a mom has to endure. Many parts of every day i can’t even breathe. I still have brief moments where i think it’s not real but those are fading. I wish i could talk to all the kids and just have them ask me whatever they wanted and not make this such a hush hush taboo subject. Maybe they could even help me understand it.

      • Nancy · May 9, 2015

        Alana, I spoke with Thomas tonight. One never knows how their teen son is going to react, but he loves the idea and is all for doing the project. He is going to speak to his friends, but thinks it will be no problem coming up with five friends of Raidyn’s to do this. They really need this!

        Adrian, I really have no words that can express my feelings for you. It all feels so inadequate. What I can tell you, you are not alone in your grief. Raidyn was deeply loved and mattered so much to others. I have shed many tears for you and have thought there is not really anything separating us. There but for the grace of God go I. It is one hellish ball of grief and guilt. I wish with all of my being that I could “fix” this, but then I am brought to my knees with helplessness, knowing I can’t. I read your post, right as I was about to go into the grocery store, and I also couldn’t stop crying. You will never be alone. From one mother’s heart to another, I feel overwhelming empathy for you. Thomas would also love to sit down and talk with you. If you are up for that, I will pay. He desperately needs you, and I hope that his presence can also bring you some comfort and healing. I will send Alana my phone number in an email. I will support you both till the end of my days. Raidyn’s life mattered and his death will not be in vain.

      • alanatphotography · May 10, 2015

        Definitely email me, Nancy. We can get motions underway for that group. It’s extremely important. Thank you. ❤

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