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Spartan Wellness Center, a vision years in the making, to debut at La Cañada High School

La Cañada High School Wellness Center
Counselor and Wellness Coordinator Rachel Zooi, La Cañada High School Principal Jim Cartnal and La Cañada Unified Supt. Wendy Sinnette tour an about-to-open Wellness Center inside the IRC at La Cañada High School.
(Tim Berger/La Cañada Valley Sun)

Students stepping foot onto the La Cañada High School campus today likely noticed an important new addition — after more than a year of planning and preparation, the Spartan Wellness Center is open for business.

Located in what was formerly a textbook room in the southeast corner of the Information Resource Center, the 1,200-square-foot center is a calm and quiet place where kids can take a break from the busy world outside, talk with someone or access mental health services and resources.

In addition to individual counseling areas and a small meeting room, the Wellness Center features a lounge with comfortable seating and a giant hanging cocoon pod that offers occupants privacy and gentle movement. An illuminated moving water installation provides soothing visual stimulation.

Students can get 15-minute passes from teachers to use the area when necessary, or they can schedule small group sessions and meetings.

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LCHS Counselor Rachel Zooi solicited input from teens on how the room might accommodate the social and emotional needs that can sometimes be overlooked in traditional academic settings. Their candid answers painted a picture of a real campus need.

“We were sad at some of what we heard, that students were crying in the bathroom when they had a meltdown,” Zooi said. “They said they didn’t have time to just talk. They’re going so fast and doing so much and coping so much they don’t know what they’re feeling.”

La Cañada  High School’s Spartan Wellness Center
A design board for the new La Cañada High School Wellness Center shows how everything from color choice to furniture has been designed to offer social-emotional support for the students there.
(Tim Berger/La Cañada Valley Sun)

With the help of volunteer Maria Videla-Juniel — who runs a La Cañada interior design business and is the mother of an incoming LCHS freshman and a sixth-grader — Zooi made sure the center is soothing and has areas that can be cordoned off by sliding screens.

Videla-Juniel said in her profession she’s come to believe in the restorative powers of a well-designed space. Being able to design an area that also speaks to the mental health needs of students like her own children was a powerful motivator.

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“Our kids have pressures we didn’t have growing up,” she said. “It is my wish that any kid who needs it has a space that would feel welcoming and soothing, where they could take a 15-minute break or get whatever they needed.”

The concept for a student wellness center was developed by a districtwide safety, security and well-being task force convened in early 2018 following the Parkland, Fla., school shooting and a series of drug-related incidents on the LCHS campus.

In February, the La Cañada High School Spartan Boosters Club raised $41,000 toward its creation and the La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation raised more funds during its March gala.

La Cañada High School’s Spartan Wellness Center
A wall-mounted bubble machine provides a visual sense of peace in the new, in-progress and about-to-open Wellness Center, a project that has been in the works for the past two years, inside the IRC at La Cañada High School.
(Tim Berger/La Cañada Valley Sun)

During a tour last week of the still-developing space, La Cañada Unified School District Supt. Wendy Sinnette said adding a wellness component to an academically rigorous environment provides a needed balance.

“In today’s world, sometimes that high-performing status comes at the cost of students’ health and social-emotional wellness,” she said. “We want our kids to have every opportunity [afforded by] a high-performing district, but we also want to make sure when they’re here and when they leave they’ve become balanced, well-rounded people who can go out and succeed in the world.”

La Cañada High Principal Jim Cartnal said a team of administrators and staff visited similar centers across the region to get an idea of what other schools were doing. One goal was to destigmatize visiting the Wellness Center and make the area inviting enough so kids would come in out of curiosity, if nothing else.

“We’re taking a ‘Field of Dreams’ approach,” Cartnal said. “If we build it they will come.”

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