CORUNNA — For 17 years, Alesha Miller worked in children’s protective services for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), serving Genesee and Shiawassee counties.
“It was very trying at times, it had a very big emotional impact,” Miller said. “There’s a lot of secondary trauma that comes with that, which means, you know, you’re absorbing those experiences that you’re dealing with with families and children, and you kind of take that on. It’s a position and experience in my life I’ll never forget. It changes you, it changes the way you look at things, it changes the way you feel for people that are suffering with substance use or poverty or just environmental things that are happening in their homes.”
In August, Miller opted to make a change, joining the Corunna Middle School staff as a social emotional resource coordinator. For Miller — who graduated from Corunna High School in 1997 — the new job meant returning home, but also afforded her the opportunity to make an immediate impact in her community.
“When I worked with the department, it was a county-wide thing, trying to help change lives of kids in the whole county, where here in a school I have these 500 kids that I get to see every day,” Miller said. “I get to see how they’re doing every day. I get to work on things with them every day, get to check in on them every day and see how things are going, and try to navigate their lives with them and try to support them.
“The other position, it was very, 15 minutes once a month, you know, and, ‘OK, I’ll see you in 30 days, hopefully everything is going okay.’ This is just a little bit more heartfelt, a little bit more where I feel like I’m really going to make a difference,” she said.
Miller works with students at CMS individually, helping to resolve conflicts between peers as well as assisting them in navigating everyday challenges.
“We do things like restorative practices here, restorative circles, so we pull down all of the kids involved and we sit in a circle and we talk about it,” Miller said. “Everybody gets a turn and we try to navigate our way through that and make sure everybody can try to learn a little empathy, try to learn a little awareness of what other’s emotions are like, and how our reaction affects them instead of it just always being very one-sided.”
Miller said she strives to lend a hand — and an ear — to kids dealing with anxiety and/or depression: She wants students to know they are not alone.
“I really want students to gain a sense of community, a sense of teamwork, that we need to support each other, that we need to look out for each other, that we need to help each other, that if you see a friend or a peer struggling, it’s okay to help them, it’s okay to support everybody,” Miller said.
In addition to her day-to-day responsibilities, Miller also serves as a “504 coordinator” for the district for grades K-7, helping to make accommodations for students with physical and/or mental disabilities, ensuring students have everything they need to be successful.
Miller helps facilitate the district’s backpack program, which provides food to students and families in need to ensure that kids are still eating on the weekends, when they don’t have access to school breakfast and lunch.
Miller would like to establish peer groups centered around specific topics — such as mindfulness, and drugs and alcohol — in an effort to keep students informed and maintain a dialogue so staff and administrators know what issues students are facing.
To jumpstart that effort, Miller, with the help of two social workers at the middle school, sent an online survey to middle school students last week, with questions such as, “What is your biggest worry when you’re at school?” and “What are some things you would like to know more about?”
Responses to the survey are anonymous and, as of Thursday afternoon, about 200 students had completed the survey, according to Miller.
“Once we get that survey completed, we’re going to sit down and pick through that and figure out where our biggest needs are and then we’re going to implement peer groups, maybe push into classrooms and do little lessons with students about those certain topics that they identified as a need,” Miller said. “You know, us as adults, we like to think that we know what kids need, but I wanted to hear from them, I wanted them to tell us.”
Miller has also sent out a preliminary newsletter regarding adverse childhood experiences to staff. Adverse childhood experiences include, but are not limited to, divorce, the death of a parent, as well as substance abuse or domestic violence in the home.
“These experiences that children go through can really have a traumatic effect on them and because of that traumatic effect, if you look into the research, it really can impact how their brain develops which then can lead to different ways that they act and behave,” Miller said. “If we know kids here now that maybe have had or have gone through some traumatic events, it’s mindful for us to be aware so then we can work with them on those things, build those relationships with them and try to contradict that effect in a postive way.”
In her short time working directly with students, Miller said she can already see an impact.
“I truly, truly enjoy being here. I enjoy the energy,” Miller said. “I enjoy just seeing their faces every day. Knowing that I’m helping them. I enjoy when you can see that they’re starting to grasp the concepts of empathy with their classmates and peers. I love when you can start to see that what you’re implementing with them is starting to take hold, now mind you, I’ve only been here three months, so we’ve got a long way to go and a lot of things that we still want to work on, but just being around them, the energy that they provide is amazing and it makes my heart happy when you can see that they’re happy.”