Roaring Fork School District students use capstones to deepen mental health awareness

Seniors use final project to channel personal experiences into community conversation

Jessica Peterson
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Roaring Fork High School senior Natasha Jewell works on her capstone project at the school library.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Yamilet Vazquez goes by “Yami” for short, and used her senior capstone project to give survivors of sexual abuse a voice.

“It happens to everyone and it may happen at any time, but the fact that they’re survivors is what truly makes the story important,” Vazquez said.

Vazquez is a senior at Basalt High School and grew up in the Roaring Fork Valley, but for as familiar she is with the area, she said she had no idea individuals close to her had experienced this kind of abuse and are survivors themselves.

“I realized that I didn’t actually know everyone as well as I thought I did. They told me, ‘hey, I was molested when I was younger,’ and I was shocked … I think I was the third person that they told, and this happened years ago … I knew them my entire life, they cared for me and protected me and to find out that happened to them, it made me see why they took care of me the way they did,” Vazquez said.

She said she learned that it’s impossible to know everything that goes on behind closed doors. When doing the research for her Capstone, the final product being a website intended to showcase testimonies from survivors, similar to a museum exhibit in Belgium from 2018, she said she hoped to bring the experience of survivors to light.

Natasha Jewell, a senior at Roaring Fork High School, also had a personal encounter with the subject she chose to pursue for her capstone.

“It all kind of started my freshman year. One of my best friends, Patrick Palardy, killed himself. So I started working with his mom before I even had the idea for the capstone my sophomore year. I would volunteer at a bunch of the fundraisers she put on,” Jewell said.

For the past year, Jewell has volunteered at Stepping Stones, as a mentor for students younger than her. Jewell said she feels like their unofficial big sister and just takes the time to get to know the kids, whether it be through video games or walks to the Dollar Tree.

Roaring Fork High School senior Natasha Jewell.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

“I’m just an older sister to them I guess that’s not really related … I think it’s important because a lot of these kids have a lot of struggles at home and at school as well. Growing up is really hard. I remember middle school was super hard for me, I got bullied and stuff, and my mental health was not really good. And I remember Patrick was actually there for me,” Jewell said.

The tangible element of Jewell’s capstone was the fundraising work she did, which all had to be virtual because of COVID-19. Her community expert, Kyle Crawley, the executive director of Stepping Stones, taught her how to write a letter to potential donors and exceed her fundraising goal of $10,000. Jewell said initially she wanted to raise $100,000 so the non-profit could break ground on a second location in El Jebel that would be called Patrick’s Place, but for now the donations she collected will go towards remodeling of the Carbondale facility.

“I think I raised (over) $15,000, so I definitely went a bunch over just by writing one letter so I was really impressed with myself … And I got a plaque donated…My plan is to have Patrick on it, and we’re still working out the words … But it will also say ‘in loving memory,'” Jewell said.

Savanna Pearson, the capstone coordinator for RFHS, said it’s common for students to change their mind as they go through the process of completing the project they begin during their junior year. Because of the flexibility the district provides students with, it allows them to explore different avenues before settling on a topic to pursue, Pearson said.

“The capstone has been a really cool opportunity for students to either get more involved in something they’re already interested in, that they may not feel like they have time for, or for students to realize things they are interested in,” Pearson said.

Vazquez said her mom asked her what she planned on doing with the information she collected and insights she gained while working on the capstone. She said as she enters college she won’t shy away from controversial topics just because the conversations surrounding them may be difficult to have.

“I just want to make sure that people’s voices are being heard on any occasion that they can be heard. Even if it’s like posting things on social media,” Vazquez said. “It’s just the little things that make a difference to someone who’s been through so much that I realized how important it is to be kind to everyone I meet.”