Listen as Indra Owens, school counselor at Chelsea Heights School in Atlantic City and the 2020 New Jersey School Counselor of the Year, shares her personal passion to educate, engage, empower, and equip families with the tools they need to take advantage of social-emotional and mental health supports.
This Week's Storyteller
Indra Owens is Elementary School Counselor at Chelsea Heights School in Atlantic City, New Jersey and the curator of the Trust Your Journey Project. She is committed to redefining mental health & mindfulness, advocacy, awareness & support in urban communities and building resilient families.
Indra’s book Trust Your Journey: Balancing Your Personal Life, POWER MOVES & Parenthood Like the Superwoman You Are! is available on Amazon.
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Hi, everyone! Welcome back to the Encouraging Words for School Counselors podcast, the little podcast of fun and encouraging stories from school counselors about school counseling. I’m Matt Fleck with the nonprofit Inspire Success. Thanks for spending time with us again this week.
We recently hired our fifth staff member at Inspire Success. Her name is Aimee Portteus and she has more than 30 years experience as a teacher, a school counselor, and Director of Guidance in north central Indiana. We are delighted to have Aimee on board! Right away Aimee jumped in by building connections with previous school counselor of the year award winners. One of those winners is Indra Owens – New Jersey’s School Counselor of the Year in 2020 – a passionate school counselor and a captivating storyteller.
So one day, and this is when Payless shoe stores in New Jersey were open. So, you know, we no longer have Payless shoe stores, right? That’s probably why we had COVID, because that is such a disaster. Like, who didn’t like cheap shoes, right? So one day, and this was a few years ago now, I was in Payless shoe stores – actually, again, after a long day of being a school counselor. And you know, so I’m really big on self care. I said, you know what, let me just go – a lot of times it’s just retail therapy. I may not even necessarily buy shoes, but it’s like, you know, instead of, you know, let’s break up the monotony. I won’t just go, you know, from work to home and then kind of get right into mom mode. And I said, let me go window shopping and look at some shoes.
I see a family. Love – absolutely love, love, love – this Bengali family. And, I mean I watched their kids grow up from pre-K through all the way to eighth grade because a lot of our schools here in Atlantic city they’re structured where they go from pre-K to eighth grade. So I’m in Payless shoes and I see one of my favorite families, and I had actually never met the mom. And the daughter is saying, “Mom, Mom,” and you know the mom’s like,”What?” you know, and she’s like, “There goes my principal, there goes my principal!” And I say, “Hi, Mom. Hi mom, how are you?” I introduced myself. “My name is Ms. Owens, and Mom, fortunately, I’m not the principal. I’m not the principal. I’m the school counselor.”
Maybe you noticed that Indra did NOT say to the mother, I’m “just” the school counselor? Indra knows – as we all do – that you don’t have to have the title or the income of a school principal to have a positive influence on students.
I always share that story because, you know, it just again shows the importance of the role of school counselor and where like, you know, all these little people we serve, not only the little smiling faces and even on those days where they’re not smiling, they know that the school counselor is a huge role and a safe space for them when they need somebody, especially the adult support, right? And, I’m like, wow. You know, the first time that student said that in that moment, it really helped me even give more value to what I did every day because the imaginations of our children, they really inspire. And so the fact that this little kid who I see every day and I’m just, you know, available for her. And, you know, sometimes in school, the students just feel like a number. And I’m talking about, at the time, I was at an elementary school in Atlantic city that had 900 students. It was huge. So this one out of 900 and just her perspective, and the fact that she imagined – or she thought – that I was the principal, it really felt good. And it really resonated with the presence of school counselors, and again, the importance of the role.
Indra worked previously as an English teacher before becoming a high school counselor, and now she loves being a counselor at the elementary school – partly because of the opportunities it gives her to advocate for mental health and social emotional well-being early on with students and families.
Anybody in Atlantic city can tell you, or even in this area that I’ve become like this conduit or a catalyst to redefine mental health, and mindfulness, advocacy, support, and awareness in urban communities in really getting more into building resilient families. I just think that it’s really important that brown people and Hispanic people really understand that mental health doesn’t necessarily have to be taboo anymore. And I think that because of COVID – God bless COVID – because of COVID, you know, mental health awareness has become such a big thing. I don’t really want to call it a trend because I was actually talking about, you know, redefining mental health in urban communities, way before COVID. So I’m glad that, you know, in a sense, the pandemic shined a light on it.
Indra focuses on reducing the stigma around mental health, helping students and families understand the language of social-emotional learning, and counteracting negative stereotypes of counselors and therapists.
I’m really into dispelling a lot of the myths surrounding mental health and seeing a counselor or seeing a therapist. And it’s just never ending work. You know, it’s just never ending work as a school counselor.
Indra says it’s hard to imagine that any parent WOULDN’T want this information for their son or daughter or that they wouldn’t want the absolute best resources to help their kids to be successful.
These aren’t necessarily the conversations they’re having intrinsically at home. Like, you know what I mean? They’re just not naturally having these conversations at home. And so they might, you know, if they’re playing UNO, they might get a little math in. They’re reading a good book or magazine or even something on Tik Tok, they’re getting the reading in. If you understand what I’m saying, but how else would they really focus on mental health and mindfulness if someone isn’t really introducing it to them first? You know what I mean? And so I really get excited about being that person.
The importance of helping connect families with mental health supports truly hit home for Indra and her 11 year old daughter Journey when COVID upended all of our lives.
It really resonated at home in our living room while everybody was quarantined, because I said, I have one kid, I’m an educator, I’m a school counselor now, but I taught English forever. And I started, you know, after the first two weeks I struggled. And I said, whoa, Journey, whoa. We had to up the ante on using a lot of the tools and the techniques because that’s what I say to the parents. It’s easy peasy, lemon squeezy. And I’m passionate about sharing these tools and resources with you because I use them at home. I have a middle schooler, I get it. You know? And so it’s nice when I can kind of take off school counselor and then the parents can see me as Journey’s mom. And that has really been a relatable tool I’ve used to help parents be less resistant to counseling
As a result of this “aha” moment, Indra and her daughter Journey decided to write a book to help other moms and daughters have honest conversations around mental health and to encourage families to use the many social-emotional support tools and resources that are available to them. You can find a link to Indra and her daughter’s book entitled Trust Your Journey on our website – inspiresuccess.org/podcast.
And while you’re there, go to the top of the page and click Sound Booth to record a story of your experiences as a school counselor, or you can contact Aimee and she’ll set up a short Zoom recording session with you that’s quick and easy and fun. Aimee is the one who recorded THIS story and here’s what Indra had to say about it.
It’s really nice that school counselors can get opportunities to really share what they do and who they serve and how they serve. Because a lot of times… I always say that, you know, school counselors are like that mystical, overlooked creature. And we really add a lot to the school community and the climate of school buildings. And so as soon as I saw the opportunity to be a part of your podcast, I said, you know what, let me email Aimee directly and just, you know, be a part of some of the good things that are happening inour industry, in our lane, because the role of school counselor is extremely important.
So if you have a story or two to share – click to our online Soundbooth – or just email Aimee – that’s A-I-M-E-E – at inspiresucess.org. You will love talking with Aimee, by the way.
Alright, that’s it for us. Thanks Indra, thanks Aimee. Stay warm, stay grounded, and remember Indra’s words: Trust your journey. So long.