A Dorchester teacher has won a $5,000 grant from the Born This Way Foundation to support her series of mental health-focused projects at the Lilla G. Frederick Middle School on Columbia Road. The foundation, started by pop singer Lady Gaga and her mother Cynthia Germanotta in 2012, seeks to “support the wellness of young people and empower them to create” — two objectives shared by Jennifer Dines, an English as a Second Language teacher at the Frederick.
“What she’s doing hits right at the heart of our work, in the mental health space,” said Germanotta.
Dines’ classrooms and her after-school program are filled with kids from all around the world— including the Dominican Republic, Somalia, Vietnam, and Cape Verde— many of whom are dealing with the stresses and difficulties that accompany beginning life in a new country.
“A lot of them have experienced trauma from immigration,” explained Dines. “Some of their relationships are brand new to them. They’re getting parented by someone different, they’re adjusting to a new language, new culture, snow...there are some who are refugees, or had a parent pass away, or have seen horrible violence.”
One of the therapeutic projects Dines leads her students through involves making “sensory bottles”— water bottles filled with water, sand, glitter, and gemstones that students can play with or hold onto as a means to calm their nerves or treat their anxiety.
Dines’ students also paint “peace rocks” and record their stories in journals as part of a cathartic activity that combines art and writing.
“Basically it’s using art and writing as a way to have a safe space, where they can share their stories,” said Dines.
Through these exercises, Dines has observed that her immigrant students possess “a combination of incredible stories and a sense of purpose.”
“One of my students is a refugee from Somalia,” Dines explained. “She wrote about seeing people dying all around her and then getting to a refugee camp in Kenya and being so happy to have food and water...her goal is to go back to her country and build houses for her people.”
But it’s not only past trauma that students at Frederick have to reckon with. Dines referenced a fatal January shooting at a nearby Burger King parking lot near Grove Hall as just one of the examples of how gun violence continues to shape her students’ lives.
Dines’ use of innovative ways to cope with the sadness, anger, isolation or other emotions that arise due to trauma is what caught the attention of the Born This Way Foundation, which chose Dines’ project as one of five winners out of over 600 submissions.
“Her project really resonated with our core message, which is all about making a kinder and braver world,” said Germanotta.
Partnering with DonorsChoose.org, an education crowd-funding non-profit, the Born This Way Foundation contributed $150,000 to match funds for mental and emotional wellness projects submitted on the platform. Germanotta explained that the selection criteria for the initiative included creativity, a solid grounding in research, potential to decrease the stigma around mental health, and the ability to teach student skills.
“Our foundation has been rooted in research since its inception,” she said. “The whole idea of ‘peace areas’ demonstrated that [Dines’] project was informed by research from Mass Advocates for Children on creating spaces for students to regulate their emotions.”
Germanotta also cited a report showing that, while 9 in 10 kids view mental health as a priority, 36 percent say topics regarding mental health are not included in their curriculum. Her daughter and co-founder Lady Gaga has long campaigned against bullying and for increased gun control and mental health awareness.
“As a foundation we hope this is the beginning of longer-term integration of mental health in schools,” said Germanotta.
In the wake of the nationwide March For Our Lives movement, Dines says prioritizing projects that teach kids empathy, respect for living things, and let them hear each others’ stories can have a transformative impact on individuals who may be hurting or feeling desperate.
“Just by building opportunities to connect and creating a welcoming place, I think that’s a preventative step,” she said.