White Lake Native Haley Whitmore developed We Stand Together to help kids and teens in her community. Now, more schools are adopting it to address stress, depression and suicide prevention.
By Hannah Owen
Photography by Allison Farrand
For Haley Whitmore’s Girl Scout Gold Award, she wanted to create a mental health program that would help students, and that’s exactly what she did.
Now 18, the White Lake native has made a huge impact on her community with a program she developed as a senior at Lakeland High School. Whitmore created We Stand Together, a comprehensive program designed to teach K-12 students about mental health.
The program earned her the Girl Scout Gold Award — the highest achievement for a Girl Scout. To receive it, a high school Girl Scout must complete 80 hours of community service and make a lasting impact on her community. “It’s really a time for girls to discover what they’re passionate about and get excited about what they want to do,” Whitmore says.
Girl Scouts, Whitmore adds, taught her that she can accomplish anything. “My leader really taught us at a young age about the power of leadership and financial literacy and what it means to be an empowered woman,” she says.
While deciding her Gold Award project, Whitmore began seeing how she wanted to use her power.
“Mental health was a really big issue in my community,” Whitmore says, explaining within the past five years, her town saw about seven suicides. “I guess I never realized how big of an issue it was until mental health and suicide started really affecting my life, my friends and my family.”
At this point, she knew she had to find a way to help her community. “It seemed like nothing was going to change if no one did anything,” Whitmore says. “I wanted to be one of those people who make change.”
Whitmore created We Stand Together as a multilevel program that uses different strategies to educate students of all ages. “Elementary students learn about how their words affect students and how their actions can hurt or help another student,” she explains. “Middle school students learn about what mental health is and stress and stress management techniques, and high school students learn about depression and suicide prevention.”
In a 2018 Pew Research Center study of teens 13-17, about 70 percent reported that anxiety and depression is a “major problem” among people their age. The more stress young people struggle with, Whitmore says, the more likely they are to develop mental health issues in the future. One goal of her program is to teach students ways to cope with overwhelming stress.
Whitmore held the program over one week for less than five minutes of class time a day. During that time, students learned valuable lessons about mental health. She created lesson plans for teachers and principals by talking to administrators and gathering information about what students might need to know about mental health.
“I gathered volunteers,” Whitmore adds, “fellow Girl Scouts, student groups that wanted to make a change or just students that wanted to help. It was very much a community project. I couldn’t have done it by myself.” She says the “beauty of the program” was in people coming together to create better futures for kids in the community.
We Stand Together reached about 9,000 students in its first year and impacted about 12,000 people, including parents and volunteers. Whitmore says that since then, it’s expanded into several different school districts in Michigan as well as several different states. “It’s growing rapidly, and we’re excited to see that change,” she says.
Whitmore’s mother, Kristen Rowell, who was also a devoted Girl Scout, couldn’t be more proud of her daughter. “Her determination and dedication to her project, her creative and intelligent approach to looking at an issue, her perseverance to overcome obstacles and her ability to inspire others to join her in making a change at such a young age — I find to be truly inspirational,” Rowell says. “I cannot wait to see what she is able to accomplish in the future.”
Although Whitmore is no longer personally running We Stand Together, she’s still in contact with administrators, who each oversee the program in their own districts.
The Huron Valley Community Coalition, a group that encourages young people to abstain from using drugs, works with We Stand Together in Whitmore’s hometown. Director of the coalition Randy Root says Whitmore was able to rally the entire school district around her Gold Award project using her intelligence and charisma.
“Her ability to articulate her plan to address teen suicide and other mental health issues got board members, administrators, teachers and students all pulling in the same direction to execute this complicated project,” Root says.
Whitmore now lives in Holland and attends Hope College, where she’s studying psychology and political science with a pre-law focus. She says one day she would like to run for Congress and she believes America’s government should give more attention to mental health.
Whitmore says there are simple ways that people can work to combat poor mental health every day. “I would just urge people to always be kind to others,” she says. “You never really know what someone else is going through and a smile passing someone on the street or picking something up that someone dropped really can change a person’s day. I would just encourage those random acts of kindness.”