PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — Transforming student-athletes into on-campus leaders. That's the mission of a South Florida nonprofit organization called Student ACES.
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On the field, Declan O'Sullivan is a tough lacrosse player at Park Vista Community High School in Palm Beach County.
"I think you form a good bond with your team," O'Sullivan said. "They are kind of like your brothers out on the field. They always have your back."
In the classroom, O'Sullivan is learning how to handle tough situations.
"I think it can prepare you for challenges you'll face in college and after college or just anything," O'Sullivan said. "To be a self-advocate for yourself and how to reach out to people in social situations."
O'Sullivan is one of many South Florida high school athletes participating in the Student ACES program. The local nonprofit organization started by a father and daughter duo prepares high school athletes to tackle life head-on.
"It's not so much a lecture as it is working together to problem solve, using creative thinking skills," said Krissy Webb, the executive director of Student ACES. "As a leader in your school, what are you going to do in certain situations?"
During workshops, the group uses role playing to explore situations the student-athletes may find themselves in, knowing there is always a choice to make.
"You never know when you might face a situation like that and kind of look at different aspects of how you could react to it," O'Sullivan said. "Because a lot of life is how you react to situations and how to tolerate certain things."
Webb said that right now, it's even more important to focus on key words like mental health and depression.
"You are really starting to see the lack of social skills taking place. During COVID-19 it really came up, so the students were comfortable not communicating," Webb said. "So you are pushing kids out of their comfort zone."
And into a zone where they can make an impact on and off the field.
"If you can create those leaders among leaders, you have those student-athletes lead, then it will create positive behavior change among the whole student body," Webb said.
Student ACES, which was created in 2013, works with about 12 schools in Palm Beach County, in addition to students in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
Webb said the program has reached more than 50,000 students in almost 10 years, and also has a center in the Glades that opened in 2018 and is open every day to serve students in that area.
"If you can equip the students with the right mental health and behavioral health awareness and definitions, understanding what it means, then you can really create those different leaders who can act in a certain situation," Webb said.
The program also trains students in mental health first aid, teaching them how to respond to someone experiencing a mental health crisis. More than 50 students have been trained so far.
For more information about Student ACES, click here.