How Nik and his classmates across Michigan are succeeding post-COVID

Photo Courtesy of LIFT Youth Suttons Bay via Facebook

By Lucas Henkel

March 31, 2024

Michigan’s public school students need a community to make a post-COVID comeback. That’s happening right now—and it’s working. 

TRAVERSE CITY—Middle school is notoriously a weird time in any kid’s life. For the kids who went to middle school during the pandemic, those early teen years were especially complicated.    

“It was a really weird time. It was so isolating and I lost contact with a lot of people,” said Niklas Carman, of Suttons Bay. Instead of celebrating the end of his middle school years with his eighth-grade class at Greenspire Middle School in Traverse City, Nik had to submit his final assignments online from his bedroom. 

As schools across Michigan—and the rest of the world—closed their doors due to COVID-19, many students like Nik shifted into online schooling. While this helped keep his grades up, Nik’s mental health suffered. 

Anyone who lived through the pandemic knows that Nik wasn’t the only one who struggled. Multiple studies have shown that the significant stress and uncertainty of the COVID era led to increased levels of clinical depression, anxiety, and loneliness among adolescents.

“We made the best of the situation, but it was hard,” said Nik’s mom, Monica Carman. 

Getting schooled

When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took office in 2019, one of her top priorities was to clean up Michigan’s public schools, which were suffering from corruption and disinvestment associated with Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s leadership. Michigan was ranked dead last in the nation for school funding growth, and public schools were consistently falling in the bottom third on the nation’s report card. In 2019, Whitmer’s focus on investing in our schools was just starting to pay off—and then, the pandemic hit.

Every state’s student performance tanked, and Michigan was no exception. “…because of the pandemic and remote learning, almost all the gains that many of our districts/schools had made were erased or almost erased,” wrote the Michigan Department of Education in a letter responding to COVID impact reports. 

As kids returned to school post-COVID, elected officials were faced with a test of their own: how to bring students back up to speed. Here in Michigan, voters sent a big message about how they wanted it handled—in 2022’s midterm elections, they elected the first Democratic majority in 40 years. And of particular note, they overwhelmingly elected teachers to our state government. By January 2023, former teachers controlled every education committee in the Michigan Legislature. That Legislature got to work on a plan for our students.

UpLIFTing students

With his older siblings out of the house and minimal opportunities to hang out with kids his age, Nik spent a lot of the pandemic alone with his guitar. 

Nik started playing guitar around the age of 7. Even today, nearly a dozen guitars from his collection can be found lining the walls of his family’s home in Suttons Bay. 

“He used to play professionally, really, as a little kid, but he never had kids his own age to play music with,” said Monica. “It was more adults or he’d be doing solo things. He really wanted to just enjoy the music and just find a community.”  

When COVID restrictions eased and Nik began attending Greenspire High School as a sophomore, he made friends with other musically inclined students. One of those friends told him about an after-school program that hosted a weekly jam session for students and community members. Nik decided to check it out.

After attending his first community band jam session at the Leelanau Investing for Teens Center (LIFT), Nik knew he was in the right place. 

“It was a really great experience. It’s a lot of fun to hear all of the different musical backgrounds everyone here has,” he said. 

“He reconnected at LIFT with a kid that he knew from grade school, and they actually got a band together,” said Monica. Nik began attending the after-school program on a regular basis.

LIFT is a free after-school program for the area’s 6-12 grade students. It partners with local public schools to provide academic tutoring, mental health support, leadership skills, and more. When Michigan’s Legislature started working on a COVID recovery plan for public schools, programs like LIFT went on the list.

“There are times when students need more instruction than the typical school day. After school tutoring and enrichment programs are a great way to meet that need,” said Rachel Huiskens, 5th grade teacher at Fiedler Elementary, back in 2022. She was talking about the MI Kids Back on Track plan, which started with $3 billion in additional revenue brought in under Whitmer’s fiscal management to boost supplemental tutoring and support programs for public school students.  

Similarly, the American Rescue Plan provided COVID recovery grants to all kinds of programs that directly improved the lives of Americans. Among them: 28 nonprofits, government bodies, and advocacy groups in Leelanau—including LIFT. 

“Programs like LIFT are so vital in connecting our young people to community, and opportunities to grow and lead,” said State Representative Betsy Coffia, who represents Michiganders living in Leelanau, Grand Traverse, and Benzie counties. She added that LIFT is one example of the state Democratic Legislature’s continuing investments in post-pandemic public education. “I’ve been a big fan of LIFT and am excited to advocate with Gov. Whitmer to support them.” 

Based on data collected from both parents and staff in the Suttons Bay Public Schools, LIFT’s programming improved individual students’ demeanor, grades, and engagement.

Monica said that she’s seen such improvement in Nik, who’s now a senior at Suttons Bay High School. 

“He’s more confident with himself, more comfortable with himself, more willing to participate, and possibly help other kids,” she said. “I think he really recognizes the positive influence they’ve had on him, and he knows that they’re going to be there if he needs them and I think that’s really huge.”

“If I never went to LIFT, I wouldn’t have had a lot of cool experiences and wouldn’t have met a lot of good people,” said Nik. 

He—and many other Michigan students—might not be on the paths they are now, either. A recent report found that Michigan high school students’ graduation rates have rebounded to near record levels, and dropout rates have fallen.

Gov. Whitmer announced in her budget proposal for the fiscal year 2025 that she plans to further support academically at-risk students with reimbursements to districts for transportation costs, which will help free up dollars available for the classroom. Similarly, Rep. Coffia was part of an effort to secure $125 million last year through Senate Bill 173, to ensure that rural school districts across Michigan will receive more equitable transportation funding. 

Left to Right: LIFT Program Coordinator Corrie Piersma, Rep. Betsy Coffia, Rebekah TenBrink. Photo Courtesy of LIFT Youth Suttons Bay/Facebook.

Connecting with community

Creating a safe place for students to come together, find community, and talk about mental health wasn’t an accident. It’s a need that LIFT’s founders—Rebekah and Gerald TenBrink—saw in their community years before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Growing up in Holland—nearly three hours south of Traverse City—Rebekah TenBrink and her husband, Gerald, were involved in a variety of after-school programs and youth groups. 

“There’s all sorts of programs downstate. There’s all these people advocating for youth,” she said. However, after moving to Northern Michigan a decade ago, the TenBrinks struggled to find where they fit in their new community. 

One winter night, while skating at the local ice rink in Suttons Bay, Gerald joined a pick-up game of hockey with a group of teens. After the game, Gerald asked the teens what else they do for fun in town—surely, if anybody knows what cool things there are to do in town, it’s the kids.

“They said that, ‘There’s not a whole lot—you’re looking at it. We have to make our own fun basically,’” recalled Rebekah, retelling her husband’s tale. “That’s kind of when it hit me that there’s a need for this. There are kids who want to have a place to belong.

“I think one of the biggest things even pre-COVID—even back to the inception of us—was the connection with other humans,” she continued. “Feeling like you belong, I think that’s always been at the core of who we are.”

Striving to provide a safe and fun environment for the youth in her community, Rebekah founded the LIFT Center in 2017, shortly after receiving a master’s degree in Social Work from Spring Arbor University. 

Located in the basement of the Friendship Community Center, the budding nonprofit organization offered middle and high schoolers from Suttons Bay Public Schools (SBPS) weekly after-school programming. 

Knowing that transportation is often one of the biggest barriers for rural teens, LIFT’s proximity to local schools was huge for students. Being able to walk to the nonprofit after school and participate in their programming—from board game marathons to beach days—was an exciting change of pace for students.

Three years later, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of America, TenBrink realized that LIFT would need to pivot away from its traditional after-school programming model in order to best serve the community. Participating teens’ needs quickly shifted to combating social isolation, falling grades, food insecurity, and mental health concerns

To address the needs of their community, LIFT partnered directly with SBPS to deliver meals and art supplies to students’ doors, also hosting virtual homework labs. 

As schools began to open their doors back up to students, TenBrink and the rest of her team at LIFT—which had now grown to include multiple staff and dozens of local parent volunteers—continued to make themselves available for each student’s mental health needs.

TenBrink went from personally driving kids to therapy appointments as needed, sitting in a nearby coffee shop until they finished, to acquiring two 12-passenger buses to help transport students to different mental health resources. 

While this may seem “above and beyond” compared to other after-school programs, TenBrink said it’s necessary to ensure the needs of her community are being met. While public transportation does have its benefits, it isn’t always the best option for a person in crisis. 

“You almost have to have that middle human to provide the resources to get them to the thing they need to be at,” she said. 

After formalizing its partnership with SBPS for the 2021-2022 school year, LIFT moved out of the basement and into a classroom at Suttons Bay Middle School. The after-school programming was expanded to include middle and high schoolers in the area three days a week. Mental health remained a priority even after the expansion.

“One of our programs has a little ‘Zen Den,’ and that’s a place where if a kid is feeling overwhelmed or needs to talk to somebody—like a mentor or volunteer—they can go sit there. It’s kind of our signal to go check on that kiddo without them having to say anything,” she said. 

Offscreen experiences like creating art and going on nature walks are also healing for an individual’s mind and body, TenBrink insisted. 

Students in the LIFT program enjoying a beach day. LIFT Youth Suttons Bay/Facebook

“I think it’s creating that awareness piece within them from those younger years where they’re really getting heavily influenced with screens and their brains are still freaking out,” she added.

Today, LIFT has formalized partnerships with other middle and high schools in Leelanau County—including Suttons Bay, Northport, and Glen Lake—while expanding their programming to be available to students five days a week. 

What started with the TenBrinks simply talking to local teens about fun things to do in town has turned into a full-blown nonprofit with a staff of seven and hundreds of volunteers who serve more than 1,000 local students. 

“With so many people in need of mental health services, it really has opened the conversation, which can only be a healthy thing,” said Monica, who became a volunteer after seeing the impact that the LIFT Teen Center had on Nik. “I think just modeling what goes on in there with the adults—just paying attention to them and just being there to listen to what they have to say—that’s really important.”

LIFT is setting the bar for the positive changes that can happen when you take the time to listen to your community. This mindset continues to inspire local and national legislation to fight for students and to ensure that each of their mental health needs are met. 

Gov. Whitmer is also setting aside millions of dollars in her proposal to establish Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics sites across the state to provide tens of thousands of Michiganders with access to mental health services. Additionally, she plans to expand the Michigan Crisis and Access Line to ensure that individuals who are in a mental health crisis have access to help 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The Biden-Harris administration is also investing in ways to combat the youth mental health crisis through their own budget proposal for fiscal year 2025. From investing in the training of more than 12,000 behavioral health specialists to requiring community health centers to provide mental health services, these are just a handful of ways that President Biden intends to tackle the country’s mental health crisis

These major investments are necessary for our society—in Michigan and beyond—to make systemic changes. However, it’s the seemingly small things like checking in on your community members that also make an impact, TenBrink emphasized.  

“It doesn’t have to be big and shiny all the time,” she said. “It can be in these little ways that we’re showing up for people consistently. When someone keeps doing that, other people notice and start taking their own initiative because they know how it made them feel, or how much easier it made their day. It’s infectious.” 

Author

  • Lucas Henkel

    Lucas Henkel is a multimedia reporter who strives to inform and inspire local communities. Before joining The 'Gander, Lucas served as a journalist for the Lansing City Pulse.

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