Learning Life Skills for a Healthy, Successful Future

two teenagers in business attire walk arm and arm in a classroom

by Tavon Johnson

This is part of a series about Mission Thrive Summer, a program of the Institute for Integrative Health and Civic Works’ Real Food Farm that empowers youth with skills and knowledge for a healthy life.

When I initially heard Mission Thrive Summer had a leadership component, known as “Life Lab,” I instantly became intrigued. I wondered: What does leadership have to do with a healthy lifestyle? To learn more, I talked with Alica DiehlCommunity Programs Coordinator at the Institute for Integrative Health, who oversees Life Lab:

What is Life Lab exactly?

Alica: It’s a life skills training aimed at helping participants in Mission Thrive Summer become productive citizens in their community. Sessions cover important parts of holding a job and being an active, leading member of a healthy community.

You mentioned holding a job. How are the lessons applicable to the workplace?

Alica: In our unit on professionalism and job skills, participants learn and practice productive communication and listening skills that can help them in job, school, and social settings. Each crew put together a mini fashion show to display outfits that would be appropriate for various jobs—farmer, lawyer, chef, office worker, etc.—and also outfits that are appropriate for going out with friends, but less acceptable in a work setting. We reflected on how much professionalism is affected by appearance.

Do participants learn how to manage money?

Alica: Actually, for some of our participants, next week is the first time they will be receiving a paycheck in their lives. With that in mind, we wanted them to think ahead about how they might like to spend it, and what they might like to save up for. So we handed out Mission Thrive Bucks in the amount they are expected to receive in their first check—$160.

They were able to “spend” those bucks on various items such as shoes, a haircut, snacks, books, phone bill, etc., and to save as much as they’d like. Then we talked about the pros and cons of each available option for cashing and depositing checks so that participants felt comfortable deciding for themselves how to spend and save their money.

Does Life Lab make participants aware of what makes an effective leader?

Alica: Sessions help the youth identify qualities within them that, when utilized, can poise them as a leader. Participants took personality tests to learn about their natural abilities and areas that they need to work on. Units on communication skills and community awareness help prepare them for holding a leadership role successfully.

Are there any other units?

Alica: Yes, in next week’s youth activism unit, participants will be able to identify injustices within their own communities so they will be better able to address them to make positive changes.

What’s the major takeaway you hope each participant will benefit from most?

Alica: My biggest hope for Life Lab is that it becomes a place where students feel comfortable expressing themselves. In a school setting, students are often expected to receive information without an opportunity to have their ideas and opinions received in return. We want to lead activities that creates those opportunities while encouraging self-reflection and allowing participants to feel listened to and valued.

Healing is facilitated through safety, persistence, and trust.

  • Persistence: “People did not simply progress through this sequence and experience healing. The healing journey was a recursive, back and forth process. They found helpers, used the skills/resources that those helpers provided, found other helpers that provided more resources and used those skills and resources. As this process continued, people experienced a gradual amelioration of their suffering. Although many despaired at times, all demonstrated the quality of persistence—they refused to give up.”
  • Safety & Trust: “To connect to helpers, it was essential for people to feel safe in those relationships and able to trust that the person would be a helper and not a barrier to healing. Persons whose wounds included a violation of trust were especially careful about testing the safety of new relationships.”

Resources support us as we heal. They include reframing, responsibility, and positivity. “Making connections enabled participants to acquire and refine resources and skills that were essential in their healing journey. People also brought their own personal strengths to the journey.”

  • Reframing: “A particularly important skill was the ability to reframe—that is to look at suffering through a different lens.” This does NOT mean minimizing trauma or pain, but rather it often means the opposite: understanding what happened was wrong, unfair, or uncontrollable and that we are not to blame for it.
  • Responsibility: While we don’t have control over what happened to us, we are the only ones who can help ourselves heal. “A third essential resource that people acquired or refined was the ability to take an appropriate amount of responsibility for their healing journeys. They participated actively in the process of healing. Once again, some participants already had developed this skill, and some acquired or refined it from their helpers.”
  • Positivity: “Another resource that people acquired or refined during their healing journey was choose to be positive—that is to have some optimism about their situation.” People have varying predispositions to positivity. In the study, positivity was important in helping people heal. This doesn’t mean a toxic positivity, but rather simply finding some good in life and feeling hopeful about our situations.

“Connection to others was an essential part of all the healing journeys.” Humans are social creatures, and even the most introverted of us need close relationships. Friends and family add meaning and value to life and help support us, in good times and bad. 

When we experience relational trauma, relationships can feel scary, but reestablishing safety and trust in relationships is where the healing happens. (To be clear, we do not mean reestablishing safety and trust with abusers, but rather finding other healing relationships.) 

“When safety and trust had been established, people were able to connect with helpers. The nature of the behaviours of helpers that fostered healing ranged from small acts of kindness to unconditional love.”

  • “Moving from being wounded, through suffering to healing, is possible. It is facilitated by developing safe, trusting relationships and by positive reframing that moves through the weight of responsibility to the ability to respond.”
  • “Relationships with health professionals were among these but were not necessarily any more important to the healing journey than other kinds of helpers, which included family members, friends, spirituality and their God, pets, support groups, administrators, case workers and supervisors.”

Healing probably means different things to different people, but one definition that emerged from the study is: “The re-establishment of a sense of integrity and wholeness.” 

Healing was an emergent property that resulted from each individuals’ complex healing journey, a result of bridged connections between resources and relationships. “…they gradually found relief from suffering and began to exhibit emergent characteristics: a sense of hope, self-acceptance, and a desire to help others—the immediate precursors to healing.”

 In varying degrees, “they were able to transcend their suffering and in some sense to flourish.” 

  • Helping Others: We find meaning in helping others. “Understanding that suffering gives the strength and experience to help others in similar situations.”
  • Hope: We begin to have hope that we will not always feel this bad. A Crohn’s patient said, “I think gradually I realized that I was going to feel better. I did have days when I actually didn’t vomit, when I did feel better. And I think gradually I came to believe that maybe I could have a normal life again.”
  • Self-Acceptance: We see our inherent value and understand that we are not to blame for our suffering. A participant living with HIV said, “I’m really proud of myself. I think that now I still want to live. I don’t want to die, and I really love myself a lot. I have a lot of comfort in myself.”

Suffering is the ongoing pain from wounding. 

There is some debate about whether people always experience suffering on the path to healing.

Wounding happens when we experience physical or emotional harm. It can stem from chronic illness or by physical or psychological trauma for which we do not have the tools to cope, or a combination of those factors. 

“The degree and quality of suffering experienced by each individual is framed by contextual factors that include personal characteristics, timing of their initial or ongoing wounding in the developmental life cycle and prior and current relationships.”

Characteristics: How predisposed someone may be to wounding/how many tools and resources someone may have to deal with trauma/illness.

Lifestages: Developmental timing plays an important role in the impact of trauma — young children often do not have the same resources as older adults.

Relationships: Relationships can provide solace and support for those suffering, while lack of healthy relationships can prolong suffering.