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Kids’ Lives Matter

A chapter about young people and what’s important to them

A child’s needs and quality of life are far different today than they were years ago. Why? Because the world has changed, and so have their needs.


We feature a young boy with a caring, philanthropic heart whose annual birthday fund goes to charity as well as three brothers who turn their small business profits into donations for animal causes.


It’s back-to-school time, and as the world has changed, so has the approach to meeting the increasingly complex needs of students. Here, we converse with Collier County Public School officials about mental wellness in the school setting and beyond.


Are the instances of mental illness in children increasing, or are we just more aware of it as the world changes? Psychotherapist Stacey Brown, who specializes in addressing children’s issues, talks with us about integrating wellness into our children’s lives.


Back to school means back to homework, and New Horizons offers a program that provides help with homework and study partners who often become mentors.


Childhood is a brief and intense growing season. Please tend the gardens around you with care.

Young Philanthropists Among Us


Breaking Down the Wounds 
Homework Safe Haven
‘It’s OK to Not be OK’


Young Philanthropists Among Us

It’s never too early for kids to learn the gift of giving

by E. Sue Huff and Kathy Grey

You’re never too young to be a philanthropist. Children who support causes they care about not only experience selfless concern for others but, often, they harness budgetary and financial literacy. Ultimately, these children can help create change locally and in the world.

That was proven in Naples, Florida by young men in the community who worked to raise funds for Golden PAWS Assistance Dogs (GPAWS), a 501(c)(3) organization that promotes independence for combat-wounded veterans and children with life-changing disabilities through partnerships with skilled assistance dogs.

These young people, with their gifts of $2,000 and $388, support the nonprofit’s mission to provide assistance dogs to those who need them most.

Brantley Garcia

Every year for the past four, Brantley Garcia, 9, has raised money for an organization he feels passionate about. That’s how he celebrates his birthday: by helping others.

It started at the age of 4, when he heard about the Harry Chapin Food Bank’s peanut butter and jelly drive. He asked his grandmother, Tonia Fisher, why it was necessary to have such a drive. She explained that some parents don’t have a lot of money, and when school is out for the summer, some kids don’t have enough to eat. It was incomprehensible to Brantley, who immediately said, “I want to help. What can we do?”

For his 5th birthday, Brantley held his first PB&J fundraiser for Harry Chapin and has done so every year since, even using cash donations to go to the store and buy as much peanut butter and jelly as the contributions would allow.

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CSM (Ret) veteran recipient Craig Layton and Golden PAWS Service Dog Palmer, Golden PAWS Assistance Dog Founder and CEO Jeannie Bates, Brantley Garcia and U.S Army veteran recipient Reid Erikson with Golden PAWS Service Dog Melton.

This year was a little different. He had already started a charitable fund for his 9th birthday when he and his grandmother saw a service dog demonstration at a gala for Golden Paws Assistance Dogs.


“He was bowled over by it,” Fisher says. “He told me while we were there, ‘This is what I want to do for my fundraiser.’”

His family reports that he has a soft spot for golden retrievers. He also has a soft spot for veterans. The feelings seem to be mutual.

For the Golden PAWS check presentation, Brantley had a motorcycle escort provided by the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association (his grandparents are members) and the area VFW. Afterward, Golden PAWS’ puppy class performed a demonstration, and Brantley got a chance to walk Max, a Golden PAWS “cadet,” a pup in training.

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Brantley Garcia and Golden PAWS pup cadet, Max

Veteran recipients, CSM (retired) Craig Layton and U.S. Army veteran Reid Erickson, with their Golden PAWS service dogs, Palmer and Melton, demonstrated how service dogs enhance their lives.


Layton presented Brantley with a command coin to honor his dedication to veterans and others in need. It was the first time Layton had “coined” anyone in more than 12 years. But Layton said Brantley is an ideal recipient for the coin bestowed from commanders and command sergeant majors at brigade level and above.

Brantley’s father died when he was a year old, and he is being raised by his grandparents.

“He’s got a huge heart,” Fisher says, “He’s all about everybody else.”  

Brothers Unleashed

Brantley isn’t alone in giving. Three young, local brothers started Brothers Unleashed, a handmade leash business that’s also committed to providing funding for pet organizations. The three brothers work from home (with some help from their parents) to give back to the community while beginning their journey into the business world.

The young entrepreneurs and philanthropists — Andrew (13), Marc (11) and Nico Sanchez (7) — presented a $388 check to Golden PAWS from their leash sales.

Following the presentations, everyone was offered a tour of The Ken & Susan Meyer Center for Golden Paws Assistance Dogs. The new, 30,000-square-foot North Naples facility will house and train up to 40 dogs at a time, doubling the program’s current capacity, thanks, in part, to the giving nature of these considerate young men.

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Sanchez brothers present a check from their small business earnings to Golden PAWS Service Dog Care Manager Ariana Campos


Homework Safe Haven

New Horizons helps struggling students gain confidence

by Martha Perez, Communications Manager, New Horizons of Southwest Florida

Running off the bus, backpacks full of books, smiles grow as children approach the front door. After a long day of school, they are finally home.

But when many students sit down to do their homework, no one is there to help them. Suddenly, the smiles start to disappear. Parents may be working, at second jobs or are unable to assist due to a language barrier. These children are not only met with feelings of frustration but they quickly begin to fall behind their peers.

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Vanessa Vasquez

For over 20 years,  New Horizons of SWFL has been a safe haven for children to get the homework help they desperately need. In a small neighborhood in Bonita Springs, the first Super Kids Club — an afterschool club for K-5th grade-students who are struggling in school — was opened with roughly 20 children. The majority came from homes where English was not the primary language.


The founder, a former Lee County teacher, wanted to do more to make sure all students could succeed. Compassionate community members started to line up to support the students by tutoring, mentoring and offering a kind smile.

Today, Vanessa is one of the many “Super Kids” benefiting from time at the club. Since birth, she has faced several health struggles that affected her learning development. Sometimes, comprehension and concentration issues leave her feeling defeated. However, it doesn’t stop her from making her best effort.


“Vanessa always has a smile on her face, even on her worst days,” said Alexia Ramirez, Bonita Springs Super Kids Club director. The contagious smile she proudly wears gives no indication of the difficulties she battles each day.


Vanessa is a dedicated student and, ever since she walked through the doors in first grade, she has been motivated to get her work done. Shy at first, it doesn’t take long for her to open up and share her heart.


At New Horizons, volunteer tutors become mentors for the students, so when Vanessa started asking to work with Ms. Lee, it was no surprise to see Ms. Lee spend a couple hours a week assisting Vanessa with homework and, most importantly, instilling in her a sense of hope. Little by little, Vanessa grew in confidence and even began helping other students. Now, as Vanessa enters third grade, she continues to overcome every obstacle with a sweet smile and positive attitude.

It’s hard to keep a smile when dealing with personal, health and behavioral challenges. Socioeconomic and culturally unique factors can make this even harder. The youngest members of society are often overlooked, but children are brave, and when they have unconditional support, there is no limit to what they can achieve.

Their lives are important because they are the future. The dedicated people who make up New Horizons of SWFL’s supportive community believe this with all their hearts. And by empowering students, they are helping hundreds of children throughout Southwest Florida keep their smiles.

Just ask Vanessa.

The Touch Connection


The Touch Connection

There’s a science behind stuffed animals, children and stress reduction

The fact that half of America’s adults hold on to their favorite stuffed animals from childhood is testimony that stuffed animals play a substantial role in the emotional well-being of children.

Are stuffed animals linked to better mental health for children?

Stress Relief

Stuffed animals fall into a broad category of products called “transitional objects.” According to Psychology Today, “Transitional objects allow a child’s inherent sense of self to emerge.”

It’s generally accepted that the development of the human brain in early childhood lays the foundation for sound mental health later in life, a point made by an article published by Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child.

Toxic stress can damage brain architecture and increase the likelihood that significant mental health problems will emerge either quickly or years later."


Stuffed animals can provide a distraction, whether a child’s stress emanates from fear, an identified illness or pain. Stuffed animals can relieve stress simply because the child is entertained when interacting with them.

Studies have concluded that children who play with stuffed animals after surgery seem to be in less pain than those who don't. This could be explained by the fact that attention is redirected from the location of the pain to another preoccupation.

Emotional Regulation, Nurture

If you watch children interacting with their stuffed animals, you will see that many treat these animals as if they were living beings. For example, some children talk to the animals and tell them things that they may find embarrassing to tell other people, which allows them to vent and release tension.

Stuffed animals can allow children to practice emotional regulation without being afraid that they will be punished or suppressed.

Children are constantly learning from adults regarding how to nurture others. Consequently, stuffed toys help children to role-play and understand the importance of having a loving relationship with animals and other people.


Comfort and Safety

Uncomfortable positions and feelings of insecurity can trigger stress. Writing for, Jonathan Bender cites Dr. Kevin Smith, a Children’s Mercy Kansas City pediatric psychologist about children, specifically.

 “For children,” Dr. Smith says, “transitional objects such as a blanket, teddy bear or doll can provide comfort as they transition from dependence to independence at night.

Stress Release

The Jerusalem Post reports that 74 5-year-olds living with their families in bomb shelters took part in a study and were given a toy called Huggy Puppy. The toy had a sad expression and huggable long arms. They were told the puppy was sad because he was far from home, had no friends and needed help from a friend. A follow-up two months later showed that 71% had lost their severe stress reactions.

These findings hold promise regarding whether stuffed animals can be used to assist children affected by other crises, such as illness and divorce.

The piece cites the New York University Psychoanalytical Institute, which notes, “…the transitional object may be conceived of in three ways: as typifying a phase in a child’s development; as a defense against separation anxiety; and, lastly, as a neutral sphere in which experience is not challenged.”

The full version of this article can be found by visiting The Real-Life Science of Stuffed Animals, Children, and Stress Reduction.



‘It’s OK to Not be OK’

Collier County Public Schools continues to destigmatize mental health needs in students

by Kathy Grey

“It’s OK to not be OK, and it’s OK to reach out for help,” says Rick Duggan, executive director of exceptional education and student support services at Collier County Public Schools (CCPS). He and the more than 200 CCPS mental health-related staff members are there to support kids seeking or in need of help.

The Stress of Being a Kid

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)’s data and statistics on children's mental health and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, “attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), behavior problems, anxiety and depression are the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in children. Yet, about half of youth with mental health conditions received any kind of treatment in the past year.”

Still, because the stigma of mental illness has waned in recent years, today’s students tend to seek help more readily.

“They will turn up in guidance offices, nurses’ offices, or they ask (a trusted teacher or adult) for help.” Duggan says.  


Often, the first point of contact is school counselors, whose roles have changed significantly in the last decade, and more so since the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre. Traditionally, school counselors primarily addressed academic issues within the student body.


Rick Duggan

Today, CCPS staffers — including bus drivers who were trained this summer — engage in Mental Health First Aid training. The national program teaches how to help someone who is developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis. All CCPS licensed

mental health professionals have received the training, and Duggan is determined to have all CCPS staff members, from elementary to high school, certified by the end of the 2022-23 school year. Recertification is required every three years.

Supporting mental health in students is a Collier County collaboration involving the schools and staff, parents and a community support system that’s been in place for 15 years and is evolving. Following the Parkland shooting disaster, additional funding was released to schools that allows for an increased focus on students’ mental health.


Risk factors, signs and symptoms of mental illness are covered in Mental Health First Aid, which is why it was important to have CCPS bus drivers trained as they are the first to see the students before school and the last to see them before they return home.


Red flags that a student needs help include “anxiety or depression, inability to get work done, grades slipping and peer issues,” says Carolyn Rambosk, CCPS coordinator of mental health services. Red flags at home are kids hibernating in their rooms, excessive use of electronic devices and sleeping all weekend.


Carolyn Rambosk

“Social media is an echo chamber of ideas — and bad ideas. The constant connectedness to devices … 10 to 13 hours a day is a reality,” Duggan says.


It’s incredibly unhealthy and makes it more difficult for kids to have a verbal conversation.

“And what are mom and dad role modeling? Even TV-watching as a family is semi-social interaction. Now you see families watching TV together as they multitask on their devices.”

Because soft skills, interpersonal skills that develop with face-to-face interaction, appear to be on the decline in young people, Duggan advocates student club membership, sports, drama, band and community involvement, such as volunteering, the Bright Futures program or a part-time job.

He also urges parents to encourage in-person, simple social interactions, such as going to the deli counter and ordering a sub or placing a pizza order. These brief, personal encounters build on each other and are beneficial to students as they learn to advocate for themselves — including for their own mental health needs.


Breaking Down the Wounds 

Kids in emotional upheaval can navigate toward wellness with dedicated support and guidance


by Kathy Grey


Emily was in her second-grade classroom waiting for the art teacher to arrive.

She’d had a rough morning at home, with her father slapping her for complaining about his cigarette smoke. Emily was horrified by the way he’d flown off the handle. She picked up her books and ran to the bus stop.

At school, she was a gifted and celebrated artist. Art class was her favorite “special” of the week. Surely, art would make her feel better.

Unbeknownst to Emily, art teacher Miss Lorna had a rough morning, too. She stumbled with her coffee and spilled it on herself. She changed clothes and, with lightning speed, ran out to her bus … as it was pulling away. She hailed a cab, got to school, ran to retrieve her art cart and, at 9:18 a.m., ran to her 9 a.m. class. Frazzled and distracted, she rushed through the day’s instructions.

As the other kids started working, Emily raised her hand. The star student had no idea what was expected from the project.

Miss Lorna was terse in her answer. Emily nodded as if she understood, but she was frozen in fear and shame.


“Pay attention to what I’m saying,” Miss Lorna snapped. “Your classmates seem to understand.”

Emily was on the verge of tears. “But I can’t…”

The teacher cut Emily off mid-sentence. “I refuse to work with such a negative person!” Miss Lorna declared in full voice and stormed off.

Emily crossed her arms and put her head on her desk.


Stacey Brown

When she heard this story, Licensed Mental Health Counselor Stacey Brown responded with, “That’s abusive. Horrible. The teacher’s central nervous system [CNS] was already full of emotion. She viewed the student’s lack of understanding as disrespect 

and just shut it down. That teaches kids not to ask questions, and it impacts them for life.”

Indeed, Emily, now in her 60s, vividly recalls that day, the shame, Miss Lorna’s voice and even the burnt orange turtleneck she wore.

With extensive postgraduate training in childhood behavioral, emotional and academic problems, we asked Brown how we can help children who present with anxiety, depression, ADHD, PTSD and other disorders, and why these conditions appear to be so prevalent these days.

“I don’t think there are necessarily more cases,” Brown counters. “The population has grown. We have greater awareness of childhood issues. Learning disabilities are being recognized. As a society, we’re finally recognizing it. And if parents know about it, they can parent differently” and get the help their children need.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, cognitive-behavioral therapy treats anxiety and/or depression and “helps the child change negative thoughts into more positive, effective ways of thinking.”

Brown concurs, saying, “It gives them the ability to think about their situation differently.”

Some kids come into the world with a more sensitive central nervous system. Some kids have perfectionistic tendencies, often from the family environment and response to “perfection.”

With school shootings escalating, kids are typically more nervous, reinforced by active shooter drills and “being packed into a closet,” as Brown says.

“Children respond to the energy around them,” Brown says, noting that peer pressure, stressed-out adults, lack of sports prowess and learning differences can trigger high emotions.


“We forget to think like kids,” she says, “to see things through the eyes of a child.”

“When the parents freak, kids pick up on that energy. With hurricanes,” she suggests, “have your kids be part of the solution.” Go shopping for hurricane supplies together, letting them know this is normal in Florida, and we want to be prepared. “Everything depends on the grown-up and how they react.”

Older kids are especially cognizant of issues surrounding them, from women’s rights to Black Lives Matter and from the Taliban to the war in Ukraine.

“Our kids pay attention to that stuff!” Brown stresses. “Adults need to be role models in mental and physical wellness to help the children in their lives.”

Her advice? “Yoga is your best investment for your child.”

There are many effective ways to recalibrate the central nervous system. Noting there are dozens more than these, Stacey Brown suggests these top-of-mind techniques to start confronting and conquering stress.

• Breathe through it

• Yogic movements

• Jumping jacks

• Planking

• Shake it off


A Few Stress Relievers

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