Karma for Cara Foundation awards microgrants to youths 18 years of age and younger who spearhead exceptional service projects in their communities. Meet Maraya (16) from Canoga Park, CA who–along with the Boys & Girls Club of the West Valley’s Keystone program–used her award to give back to her community in the areas of mental health awareness and emotional wellness. The group created an event connected to their local animal shelter called PAWSitivity. At PAWSitivity, community members signed up to visit & interact with shelter animals certified as therapy animals as well as participate in a wellness fair. Beyond creating a therapy event, the group also hoped the project would inspire more adoptions of the animals at the shelter. Maryaya chose to summarize the event in her own words!
Our project was called PAWSitivity and was the original idea of one of our Keystone members, who thought of it during a brainstorming Keystone meeting. PAWSitivity is a monthly event hosted at our Main Clubhouse where we invite community members to interact with certified therapy dogs inside our gym as well as visit an informational fair in our outdoor area with booths of local mental health organizations that promote and educate on mental health services and emotional well-being.
We chose to focus on addressing this issue on a local scale, as many of our members themselves or their family members, friends, or peers have struggled with finding access and information on mental health resources. As our local community in Canoga Park is also predominantly Latino, we discussed various statistics and the reality that the topic of mental health remains highly stigmatized in minority groups, such as Latino, African American, and Asian American, communities.
To plan the first of our four PAWSitivity events, we had meetings at each of our high school sites for bigger picture ideas, including promotion and organizations to reach out to. To ensure clear communication within our timeline, the Keystone Advisor was in charge of corresponding with organizations to participate at our event. We then held PAWSitivity planning meetings on weekday evenings at our Main Clubhouse where members formed into eleven different committees to make the event happen. Along with three Team Leaders, we created committees for set-up, decoration, photography, greeters/sign-in, the refreshment booth, dog rotation monitoring, write-up teams, social media team, and a promotional team that would distribute event flyers in the neighborhood. As all our members felt like this was their event, they came up with additional ideas, such as creating an “Event Passport” to encourage attendees to interact with various booths, an inspiring playlist for the outdoor fair, and a PAWSitive Poster, where attendees write encouraging messages to themselves and others.
Because we met to plan several times before our event, we were prepared for our first event. We had ten organizations join us, including the local University Counseling Services department, the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, and various other mental health organizations. We also had a gardening booth, arts & crafts booths, and of course, the therapy dogs, courtesy of a volunteer organization called Love on A Leash. We had over 100 people in attendance at our event. From our pre-surveys, we learned that 56% of our attendees have personally struggled with or have an immediate family member who has struggled with mental health issues. Eighty of our attendees interacted with therapy animals for an average of fifteen minutes. Amazingly, our post surveys showed that 100% felt more aware of mental health resources in our community after the event!