January 26, 2022

An apple for the teacher

Mental health orgs show appreciation for educators

Valerie Puma/staff reporter

Mental Health Association of Cortland volunteer Jennifer Stilton (left) hands over four dozen apples to Valerie Chapman, a prevention specialist for Cortland Prevention Resources, to distribute to local teachers in appreciation for their hard work and dedication.

As a sixth-grade teacher, Kalee Updyke is no stranger to the roller coaster of emotions that comes with the territory of middle school — especially school during a global pandemic.

“I can see the sadness going through these good kids,” Updyke said. “I’ve spoken to students whose parents have lost their jobs, and I think these kids are being affected by all these changes that we’re having right now more than we realize.”

Being a teacher means keeping an open mind and being there for your students, she said.

To show appreciation for local teachers, the Mental Health Association of Cortland bought 1,600 apples from Apple Acres in LaFayette for the faculty and staff at all 19 schools county-wide.

Volunteers from Family and Children’s Counseling Services of Cortland County helped distribute the fruit Monday morning.

The act is a small token of appreciation in acknowledgment for the hard work of school staff, said Jennifer Sylstra, a volunteer with the Mental Health Association.

“We want to recognize every staff person at every school,” Sylstra said. “They’re all working equally as hard.”

This school year is especially hard as children who were home for much of the last academic year, and the end of the previous one, return to school, she said.

“Jen had the great idea of recognizing the teachers — they’ve been through a lot with COVID last year and trying to transition back into the school system this year,” said association President Julie Partigianoni. “We thought it might be a great way to spend some of our money and show our appreciation of teaching, not just the teaching but the district as a whole.”

Many of the association volunteers work in school districts and see first-hand some of the challenges staff are trying to navigate the children through, Sylstra said.

Valerie Chapman, a prevention specialist with Family and Children’s Counseling Services, has spent the past several weeks working with elementary school students.

“I think it’s really important to show appreciation for these teachers and thank them for the hard work that they’re doing, especially with the pandemic and this being such a rough year,” Chapman said.

Some of the children, especially the second-graders who were kindergartners when the COVID-19 pandemic began, have not been exposed enough to how a classroom is run, said Sylstra.

“They’re behind academically, they’re delayed socially and emotionally because they’ve been home during a critical development period,” Sylstra said. “Some did well remotely. Some did not.”

While distributing the apples, the Mental Health Association members introduced themselves to teachers and staff, hoping to build a connection with the schools and mental health, Partigianoni said.

“We want to help provide information to the schools about mental health that will help them work with the students,” Partigianoni said. “We’re here to support the schools and provide resources — anything that will help continue to build education and awareness around mental health in our community. It’s important to have more conversations about it and reduce the stigma.”

— Staff Reporter Sarah Bullock contributed to this report

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of a source’s name and to clarify the role of volunteers.