Of course it’s always important to remember to take a step back and really think about your actions before acting on them and your words before you say them. Kaitlyn Kropp knows what it’s like to need a minute to cool down. “I have mood swings and so sometimes I’d feel overwhelmed and just kind of lose it,” she says. “It was hard on me, and I know it was hard for other people, too. I wasn’t trying to hurt anyone, though, and I wanted to not have those problems. I didn’t like that my feelings of sadness or fear could take over like that.”
So, like a true leader, this 17-year-old Girl Scout Ambassador set out to problem solve and help herself and other kids facing similar problems. And it turns out many teens are living with these types of issues. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, three out of every fifty teens aged 13-18 are grappling with severe anxiety disorder.
“We used to have something called a ‘processing room’ at school, where kids could go and talk through their feelings with a teacher or a counselor, or write them down. But that’s not what everyone needs—in fact if you’re freaking out, having to talk or to write something that makes sense can add even more pressure. That was the case with me, and I knew a few other kids who felt the same,” Kaitlyn says. “All I really wanted was an enclosed space where I could be by myself and chill for a few minutes so I could calm down and get back to my school work without having a bad incident.”
Soon, Kaitlyn learned about sensory rooms—quiet, calming spaces where people can take a moment to refocus—and decided her school needed one badly. “I talked to the principal first, and she was totally behind the idea, but the board of directors for the school district had to approve it, too. Not only did they like it, they actually gave us the grant to get the room started!”
Kara Kendrick, principal at Kaitlyn’s school, the Academy at Forest View, adds another level of meaning to Kaitlyn’s work. “Our students for the most part have not been successful at other schools. We have a large number of students here who are on the autism spectrum, including Kaitlyn, and it’s not always easy for them to make a plan or to think of where to start on a project,” she said. “So watching her overcome her own adversity to complete a project that helps so many in our school—and that will continue to for years—has been both inspiring and motivating.”
The sensory room has been open for a little over a year, and although it took some time to catch on, it’s now a well-used resource for students. “People were afraid to go in at first because they thought other kids would look at them weird or think something was wrong with them. But after seeing just a few students start to use it, more and more started requesting time in there. Now, almost a quarter of our student body has used it at one point or another.”
Creating and maintaining the sensory room not only earned Kaitlyn her Girl Scout Gold Award, but also the second-ever Elena of Avalor Scepter of Light Award—a special honor inspired by the leadership and bravery of Disney Channel’s newest heroine. “I couldn’t believe they chose me to honor—it was so exciting!” says Kaitlyn. “But honestly, the biggest honor hasn’t been the award or even going on TV to receive it—it’s been knowing that I’ve created something that’s already helping so many kids like myself to chill, relax, and then get back to achieving great things.”