Mental-Wellness Projects Come to Life With Pittsburgh’s Unpack U

June 01, 2021

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College is hard. And it’s been made even more challenging by the pandemic. There’s social distancing, online learning, and limited student employment opportunities — all leading to increased rates of loneliness, depression and anxiety. But university students in Pittsburgh have not only embraced the challenge but found ways to connect, offer support, and channel kindness.

With the support of the Citrone 33 foundation and its Unpack U mental-wellness initiative, more than 14 collegiate teams are rolling out ambitious, community-facing projects with the goal of making life a little easier for those around them. Deemed U Prizes, monetary grants, and one-on-one sessions with Unpack U advisors will help these teams transition their plans from paper to reality. Meet two U Prize winners who are proof that the younger generation is committed to a kinder, gentler world.

Phoebe Richardson
Struggles in a Class as an IEP Student
Phoebe Richardson is in her final year at Pittsburgh Technical College. She’s a bubbly, budding artist who loves listening to David Bowie while creating. And she just happens to have dyslexia. Dyslexia is a learning disability that impacts Phoebe’s ability to write and read, including her ability to spell and use grammar and punctuation correctly. Imagine for a moment sitting through English class being unable to correctly write sentences. Seems impossible to succeed, right?

Phoebe has an individualized education plan (IEP) that provides accommodations in the classroom for students with disabilities of any kind; however, educators do not always understand the nuances of the plans and how even a slight shift in them can negatively impact the student. Phoebe’s been shuffled into a literal janitor’s closet for IEP classes and publicly berated by teachers who were supposed to be her advocates. She, and many students like her, have suffered in silence for fear of people’s reactions or having their disabilities continually dismissed. Now, Phoebe is giving a voice to students with IEPs and developing a book based on their experiences for the education community and students.

“Phoebe is an extraordinarily talented young woman who has experienced traumatic browbeating by her peers and school administrators for her disability,” says Theodora Polamalu, founder of the Troy and Theodora Polamalu Foundation and the Harry Panos Fund, and mentor to Phoebe. “Instead of withdrawing from school and society, she has found strength in her many attributes and has chosen the brave path to expose the ill-treatment of students with
disabilities. With the creation of her book, she will empower others to speak their truths and heal from their mistreatment. Phoebe is a courageous champion and will lend a voice to those who historically have had none.”

With a U Prize grant from Unpack U, Phoebe will curate anonymous, personal experiences from classmates with IEPs to give peers and educators a behind-the-scenes look at the struggles these students face. Just as important as the stories themselves, will be the solutions page that will allow teachers, principals, and counselors to reflect on improved ways of helping children clear their hurdles and learn at their highest potential.

“It’s scary to share these experiences as IEP students,” says Phoebe. “But I don’t want others to go through what I’ve gone through or what my sisters have gone through. This is an opportunity for change.”

Jaelyn Faulk
Real Reveal Podcast
For being so young, Jaelyn Faulk has experienced a number of tragic losses in his life. His father was killed when Jaelyn was only two months old. His college roommate died, his aunt passed away from breast cancer, and he lost two cousins to gun violence. But through it all,

Jaelyn has had what he refers to as his supporting cast, a close circle of friends and family who have been a critical support system through those life-altering experiences. Today, he’s a thriving graduate student at Duquesne University; the CEO of his own foundation, Healing Hurting Hearts, which provides support to children, teens, and young adults who have experienced loss; and is preparing to launch a podcast aimed at breaking the stigma around
mental wellness.

Jaelyn will use his U Prize grant from Unpack U to purchase equipment necessary to get the Real Reveal podcast up and running. Conversations with guests ranging from professional athletes to college peers will create a safe-haven for discussions around real-life struggles and success. Because not everyone has their own real-life supporting cast, which can mean the difference between life and death, Jaelyn wants the Real Reveal to promote positivity and well-
being through dialog and encourage others to reach out and share their own stories.

“I’m hoping that my personal experiences and the stories shared by guests on the Real Reveal will help others struggling with similar situations,” explains Jaelyn. “I want listeners to stay inspired, to know that they’re not alone, and that they can rebound and achieve anything if they have passion and drive.”

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