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Let’s face it. It seems that everyone is under a great deal of stress these days. This takes a toll on our mental wellness. What are some of the best self-care practices that we can use to help improve our mental wellness and mental well-being? In this interview series, we are talking to medical doctors, mental health professionals, health and wellness professionals, and experts about self-care or mental health who can share insights from their experience about How Each Of Us Can Use Self Care To Improve Our Mental Wellness. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Cherie Craft.

Cherie Craft, M.Ed, is the founding CEO and Executive Director of Smart from the Start, a community-based child and family service organization founded in 2008. Ms. Craft is considered an expert in the field of early childhood education, community organizing, cultural competence and mental health and credits her humble beginnings for her ability to effectively engage with youth and families. In 2019, Ms. Craft was appointed to sit on DC Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Maternal Mortality Review Committee, and also serves as the Early Childhood Content Expert for the Washington, DC Department of Health’s Maternal/Child Health Service Council and as Senior Faculty at the Institute for Family Centered Care.

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Thank you so much for doing this interview with us. It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about you and your personal background. Can you please share your personal story? What has brought you to this point in your life?

I grew up in an inner-city housing project. Despite not having a lot of money, we had a rich upbringing in the sense of community we enjoyed. The folks we lived near were far more than our neighbors — we were family. We shared way more than walls and floors. We shared joys and pains, struggles and triumphs. We cheered and comforted each other and created a strong and vibrant community of people who cared about each other, helped and supported each other, shared resources, problem solved together, planned events and celebrations and collectively raised our voices to promote racial and social justice.

When I founded Smart from the Start, amid the many challenging circumstances our children and families were living in, it was always my intention to revive those roots and to restore the villages that raised the children of my generation. I wanted to ensure that communities were empowered with the right support and resources necessary to uplift and care for each other. Folks know what their communities need — they just don’t always have the power or access to the resources they need to inspire change.

What is your “WHY” behind what you do? What fuels you?

I think that undiagnosed and untreated trauma is at the root of so many of the issues our youth are struggling with, and it can have a crippling effect on their mental and physical health. When trauma is introduced, it can impact the chemistry and architecture of the brain, causing an inability to learn, grow, and function normally. As you can imagine, multiple incidences of trauma, or compound trauma, makes the impact even more crippling.

I often explain how trauma impacts a person or youth’s mental health by equating traumatic experiences to cinder blocks. A child is born with an empty backpack. Every time they experience trauma, it’s like adding a cinder block to their backpack, which slows down and can even stop their ability to move forward. In real life, trauma can lead to self-medication or substance misuse, family and community violence, self-harm or suicide and other tragic circumstances.

Unfortunately, there is so much stigma around mental health issues that many people don’t seek help. I am fueled by my passion to help families, parents and children get access to the resources and care they need to heal and thrive.

Sometimes our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about a mistake or failure which you now appreciate has taught you a valuable lesson?

Initially, Smart from the Start did not provide counseling or mental health services. We provided high quality early educational programming, parenting and adult education, financial literacy economic development — everything we thought a comprehensive program should offer to create an ecological approach to preventing the achievement gap and addressing generational poverty so children and families could thrive. However, we didn’t recognize how much of an impact undiagnosed and untreated trauma can have on child development. Once we realized, we incorporated mental health and wellness into our program design. This is essential for our children and families to achieve their greatest potential and thrive.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  • Humility: When I first came to this work as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed family advocate in my early twenties, I felt like I knew everything! I put on my cap and was ready. I truly believed that my experiences growing up in the community and my studies in Sociology had fully prepared me to help families overcome challenges, take on and fight the system and to solve the world’s problems. I quickly learned how important it was to know what you don’t know and to humble yourself to learn it. My most valuable lessons came from a group of grandparents who were raising their grandchildren. What rich, deep, useful and practical wisdom they provided! I learned so much from moms courageously struggling to overcome addictions or self-medication, young dads coming home from behind the wall, and youth living with the constant threat of violence in schools that disproportionately disciplined them because of where they came from and what they looked like. My actual education didn’t begin until I hit the ground and I am still learning every day.
  • Inspirational: In order to lead while doing difficult work and navigate people through difficult situations, I think it is essential to possess the ability to inspire. Inspire your team, your families, your funders and supporters. You must be able to help them see your vision and to envision their own for the work, the children, the families and the future. I think a large part of this involves integrity too. The integrity to always do exactly what you say you’re going to do, to be exactly who you say you are and to keep every promise you make to families and communities. One example of this is how we work with our families. So often, when they finally make it to us, they have been let down by so many services that are supposed to be there to help. They’ve been beaten up in systems often since birth and are suffering with pervasive hopelessness that has become so commonplace that they don’t even realize it. It is our responsibility — our privilege — to reintroduce them to the life that was meant for them, while also introducing them to their strengths and gifts for the very first time. The work of inspiring them to believe that life can be so much better, that they can set and achieve goals beyond anything that they’d imagined, and that the best things in life are possible for them and their children, just like anyone else. That is what we do for every single family, parent, caregiver or child.
  • Resourcefulness: Before I became a CEO, I didn’t realize exactly what it took to run an independent organization. I was always so good on the ground, working in communities with families, but I had never been responsible for funding my work. I had to very quickly learn how to develop relationships and seek out resources — not just financial, but in-kind, human capital, to nurture partnerships. After close to 15 years of sustaining and growing this organization, it is still my most challenging assignment.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting new projects you are working on now? How do you think that will help people?

We have several new projects that we are really excited about and are confident will address the mental health crisis that emerged during the pandemic, primarily among children and youth in early educational through high school settings.

One is our Address the Stress Program. Led by licensed, multicultural clinicians, this program includes summer camp, as well as group and individual therapy, to help children and families cope with stress and build resiliency. It helps them address the challenging effects of toxic stress and trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder. With support from the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health’s Innovation Awards program, we are now working across communities to erase stigma and promote healing. It’s changing the fabric of our neighborhoods — reducing violence, recidivism, school fights, suspensions and expulsions, as well as inspiring hope, getting folks into treatment and energizing people about life goals. It is also encouraging people to get involved in civics, policy change, leadership and racial and social justice.

Another is our Therapeutic Mentoring Program. We have now trained and certified young, multi-lingual therapeutic mentors to work with children in classrooms and communities to provide one-on-one and group support in overcoming mental health challenges, learning and adopting coping skills, developing healthy relationships, promoting positive choices and problem-solving skills. Through this program, we want to help children achieve peace, healing and provide the happiness every child should experience during their youth.

We also are working with early childhood staff and school-based teams to train in the methods of Social Emotional Educational Development. This will help to ensure that school communities are engaged in making educational environments conducive to positive social emotional development. We believe that by supporting families, communities and staff in educational settings we will be able to better support our youth and reduce levels of self-harm, school, domestic and community violence, youth depression, and self-medication, while also promoting better educational attainment, peaceful school environments, positive social development and improved overall child wellbeing.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, about the interface between self-care and mental health. From where you stand personally or professionally, why are you so passionate about mental well-being?

Growing up in our community and our family, I quickly realized that some of the people I loved and looked up to were struggling with some major challenges — from self-medication to school issues or violence. For example, my mom was wonderful and active in community organizing, but struggled with depression. I’d never heard anything about mental health, trauma, counseling or therapy. When I asked about it, I quickly learned that any discussion about traditional mental health treatment was taboo. If you were depressed, you were told to take it to the Lord in prayer or to go to church. We were all “too blessed to be depressed.” The stigma associated with being “crazy” was so pervasive throughout our family culture and community that we were afraid to even broach the topic. I committed myself to learning more and finding a way to eliminate the stigma that prevented folks from engaging in treatment and healing.

I was among the first I knew to get therapy. Then, I was able to convince my mom and my aunt. It was like a fog lifted and the sun came out for the first time for them. It made such a huge difference in my life as a young mother and my mom as our matriarch. I knew if I could convince her, anything was possible! I realized that various forms of trauma, among other major stressors had to be addressed if communities, families and children were going to heal and thrive. I have been extremely passionate about promoting mental health and wellness ever since.

Based on your research or experience, how exactly does self-care impact our mental wellness?

You know when you are on an airplane and they are advising you of the safety protocol they tell you that you must put your own oxygen mask on first before you can help others? It is no different with mental health, wellness and self-care.

The research is so clear that if a parent or caregiver is struggling with depression or stressed, the impact on the children can be severe. When we do not prioritize our mental health and wellness by engaging in self-care, we are unable to give our children and family the nurturing care that they need. We fail to create healthy attachments, provide children with the enthusiastic encouragement and care they need, and perpetuate an ongoing cycle.

At Smart from the Start, we encourage our parents and caregivers to engage in multiple methods to nurture and care for themselves. For example, the Address the Stress program I mentioned before incorporates self-care as a crucial component of our strategy to ensure optimal mental health. We provide journals and gift baskets with herbal tea, mugs, aromatherapy, books, bubble bath, gift cards to support at-home self-care, along with groups, workshops, tips and guidance to support them in making time to take good care of themselves so that they can better care for their loved ones.

Here is our primary question. Can you please share your “Top Five Selfcare Practices That Each Of Us Can Use To Improve Our Mental Wellness”?

Here are a few self-care practices you can try:

  • Journaling.
  • Biblio-therapy (reading, audio books).
  • Meditation.
  • Healthy habits like exercise and eating well.
  • Social activities like spending time with loved ones and finding ways to laugh.

Can you please share a few of the main roadblocks that prevent people from making better self-care choices? What would you suggest can be done to overcome those roadblocks?

I believe that we prioritize our children, our families, our work, and very seldom do we prioritize our own self-care. We fail to recognize how this can negatively impact our ability to do important things for the people we care about. It can be very difficult to justify taking time to care for ourselves when the baby is crying, homework needs to be checked, the bathroom needs cleaning or our boss is calling for us to work overtime. It feels irresponsible and we often feel guilty even thinking about it. Society does not value self-care in general and, with families who are dealing with multiple challenges, self-care is often unheard of.

In one sentence, what would you say to someone who doesn’t prioritize their mental well-being?

I never realized how good it is not just for me, but for my kids, to take time to check in with myself, breathe deeply or do something to help me to destress so that I am more patient, can better engage and think more clearly.

Thank you for all that great insight! Let’s start wrapping up. Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does this quote resonate with you so much?

“When you learn, teach. When you get, give.” — Maya Angelou

This resonates with me because I believe that we are the change we seek. This is similar to when President Barack Obama said, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” It was instilled in me at a very early age that we are responsible for uplifting our families and communities. As we begin to know better and do better, we have an obligation to ensure that others do too.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? They might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

I would love to meet Marcus Smart of the Boston Celtics who is committed to promoting healthy youth development or actress Taraji P. Henson, actress and mental health champion and advocate.

I truly appreciate your time and valuable contribution. One last question. How can our readers best reach or follow you?

You can visit our website at www.smartfromthestart.org or reach out to me by email at cherie@smartfromthestart.org.

You can also find us on social media:

Twitter: @SmartStart_Inc

Instagram: @smartfromthestart

Facebook: @SmartfromtheStartInc

Linkedin: @Cherie Craft

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.

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About The Interviewer: Maria Angelova, MBA is a disruptor, author, motivational speaker, body-mind expert, Pilates teacher and founder and CEO of Rebellious Intl. As a disruptor, Maria is on a mission to change the face of the wellness industry by shifting the self-care mindset for consumers and providers alike. As a mind-body coach, Maria’s superpower is alignment which helps clients create a strong body and a calm mind so they can live a life of freedom, happiness and fulfillment. Prior to founding Rebellious Intl, Maria was a Finance Director and a professional with 17+ years of progressive corporate experience in the Telecommunications, Finance, and Insurance industries. Born in Bulgaria, Maria moved to the United States in 1992. She graduated summa cum laude from both Georgia State University (MBA, Finance) and the University of Georgia (BBA, Finance). Maria’s favorite job is being a mom. Maria enjoys learning, coaching, creating authentic connections, working out, Latin dancing, traveling, and spending time with her tribe. To contact Maria, email her at angelova@rebellious-intl.com. To schedule a free consultation, click here.