Block party caps 'meaningful' campaign on teen mental health

 
 
Updated 8/10/2018 6:44 PM
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  • Aurora and Naperville teens who run a nonprofit group called Meaningful Summers are hosting a block party Tuesday night as part of their "A Healthier YOUth" campaign.

    Aurora and Naperville teens who run a nonprofit group called Meaningful Summers are hosting a block party Tuesday night as part of their "A Healthier YOUth" campaign. Courtesy of Ashwin Saxena

  • Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin has been a key supporter of Meaningful Summers and helped the nonprofit group plan its 2018 movement promoting youth wellness. Metea Valley High School senior Ashwin Saxena, far left, is the group's co-executive director.

    Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin has been a key supporter of Meaningful Summers and helped the nonprofit group plan its 2018 movement promoting youth wellness. Metea Valley High School senior Ashwin Saxena, far left, is the group's co-executive director. Courtesy of Ashwin Saxena

Ashwin Saxena was so busy with school, he found himself taking a break from his social circle.

The Aurora student excels at Metea Valley High School -- he earned a perfect score on his ACT exam as a junior. But for about a month last year, he was neglecting his social life while he kept up with his academic demands, and it began to take a toll.

"You feel like all of these pressures are just on you, and there's no way to relieve that stress," he said. "There's no way to tell that what you're doing is the right thing to do."

Meaningful Summers, a nonprofit he leads as co-executive director, has helped him maintain a healthy balance, and it's also become a vehicle to help his peers at Metea and Neuqua Valley high schools engage in difficult conversations about mental health and social wellness.

The teens have launched "A Healthier YOUth" campaign that will host its second event with a block party in downtown Aurora Tuesday featuring performing artists who will speak about their own mental health issues.

"It needs to be known that it is still very important to take care of your own health and your own happiness because if you don't at this stage, when you keep getting older, things are not going to get easier in that way," Ashwin said. "You have to be comfortable with who you are, or at least start knowing that you want to be that way."

Meaningful Summers was founded five years ago by Naperville teen Aditya Balsekar to inspire student philanthropy and altruism. Last summer, the group worked to build a unifying movement it called "One Aurora: The Next Generation" after Mayor Richard Irvin's "One Aurora" mantra struck a chord.

Their work was indeed meaningful: The group enlisted more than 120 teens to spent two days volunteering at Aurora's Hesed House, one of the largest homeless shelters in Illinois. They also organized a night at Aurora's SciTech Hands On Museum to show students all the possibilities in the fields of STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math.

A youth kickball tournament benefiting three Aurora charities capped their 2017 summer. Collectively, they raised upward of $3,000.

"Part of Meaningful Summers is each of us have this goal of wanting to make other people's lives better," said Niraj Lawande, a founding member from Neuqua and an incoming freshman at the University of Illinois. "But in addition, what makes me come back to Meaningful Summers and want to do it every year for the past five years is just the warm environment of the people in it."

That warm environment helped the group open up about expectations and competitiveness in school. It's an issue that made headlines last year when a Naperville North student wrote an online petition seeking to change the "pressure culture" in the wake of teen suicides.

Those specific cases came to mind when leaders of Meaningful Summers began planning the "Healthier YOUth" campaign, but they also wanted to address a "general atmosphere" of stress in teens, Niraj said.

"As students, we really know firsthand just how strenuous and intense our school environment and its competitiveness can be for us," Ashwin said. "And while it drives us to success and to reach our potential as students, often times ... we sort of sacrifice our own health and our happiness for it."

Irvin is still a key supporter of Meaningful Summers and suggested the group dedicate its fundraising efforts this year to Aurora's Simply Destinee, a dance team that promotes suicide awareness. The dancers will take the stage for "A Meaningful Summers Night Out" event Tuesday.

The first major event of Meaningful Summers -- the third-annual kickball tournament in July -- had 125 participants and raised about $2,500 for Simply Destinee, said Ashwin, who heads the group with Svanik Tandon.

With two internships, Ashwin was as busy as ever this summer, but the rising Metea senior made time for positive interactions with his friends, and he hopes other teens find those outlets, too.

"I want to make sure that people understand it's so important to take care of this health side of your life," he said.

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