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(WGHP) — You could say counseling students is a branch of Meredith Draughn’s family tree.

Her mother was a counselor. 

“What I got from her mainly is the power of listening to someone and the power of being heard,” Draughn told me recently when I visited her in her office at B. Everett Jordan Elementary, a Title 1 school in southern Alamance County.

It’s not every day you hear of a national advocate for school counselors working in such a rural area. 

But Meredith Draughn is the American School Counselor Association’s 2023 National School Counselor of the Year. 

“I just think (I’m) advocating for all the facets of school counseling, making sure people understand the systemic nature of school counseling and how we need all parts to work together,” she said.

She’s received this honor at a pivotal time for her profession. The youth mental health crisis in this country is still raging as we pull out of COVID. Feelings of stress, anxiety and hopelessness are prevalent among students in all grade levels.

And Draughn is hearing a lot these days about academic, personal and social struggles.

The challenge of trying to catch up academically after months of virtual learning is still here. It’s an even greater challenge for students in rural areas—many of whom had no or limited internet access at home during the lockdown.

“I think kids had so many new learning things thrown at them during the pandemic,” she told me. “We were trying to teach division when (the children) didn’t know how to turn Zoom on sometimes.” 

On personal levels, many students lost family members, loved ones and caregivers to COVID. That’s tough for a child of any age, but especially for those in elementary school.

“And honestly, we’re still seeing it,” Draughn said. “There are still people in hospitals due to COVID.”

On a social level, the pressures fueled by social media are there—even among kindergarteners. But just the tension of being back in the classrooms has been tough.

“And now you have 18 other people in the classroom with you. Some are making noise. Some are not. You might not have that social interaction at home, and so it can be very overwhelming,” she told me.

So Draughn meets at least twice a year with each of the school’s 355+ students in addition to holding regular group “lessons” in their classrooms. (I was there on a day when she worked with a first grade class on measuring classmates’ feelings and recognizing when they need help.) 

She listens and  helps them work through their challenges to ease the tension. She also works with their parents to help find professional help outside of the school setting if needed.

On the academic front, she helped establish the “It Takes A Village” project within Alamance County’s elementary schools. Each week after school Elon University sends students to the schools to tutor students who need academic help.

“We have 95% of our students show growth,” she told me when describing the effects of the program. “And I think more than 80% exceeded the growth we thought we thought we would see.”

For a parent who has a child who might be dealing with a mental health challenge, Draughn’s advice is simple, yet convincing:

“Take a breath and know you’re not alone. The first step is just asking, reaching out to that school counselor or the teacher and asking for help. There is no shame in saying, ‘I need help.’” 

Draughn feels another key to helping the younger children will be reestablishing trust. Before COVID, many of these children thought adults had all the answers to everything. But they didn’t have all the answers during the pandemic.

“And so we’re having to build back that trust of like no one knows what’s to come. (We’re) changing the language from ‘no one knows what’s to come’ to ‘but I know what’s going to happen today,” Draughn said. “The kids are craving love, safety and structure.” 

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And that—Draughn says—is what she and other counselors are working hard to give them every day.

The fruit doesn’t fall far from the family tree.

For more information on youth mental health and a list of North Carolina resources, click here.