The following is an interview with Vanessa Lee, owner of Smile Inside, a personal development organization that advocates for the wellbeing and personal development of youth.
Vanessa Lee graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Education from Ohio University and was selected for an advanced program that provided extensive experience and training in innovative methods of teaching. She has over 300 hours of professional development along with additional training that has contributed to her knowledge in the field of personal development.
Ms. Lee developed and co-facilitated a mentoring program and developed and facilitated a grade 7 girls program at Debney Park Secondary College. She also worked with students and groups at The Grange Primary, Newport Gardens Primary, and Derrimut Primary and continued working for Mackillop Family Services on a freelance basis with individuals on social, emotional, and academic levels.
Vanessa’s experiences inspired her to develop and provide resources for professionals who work with youth as well as for parents and their children ages 5-12. Visit Smile Inside to learn more.
1. How did you come up with the idea for Smile Inside? What was the inspiration for it?
I started out teaching in Kansas City, Missouri and saw how social problems affected families which had an impact on learning in the classroom. I wanted to contribute to the world and thought if young people had all the tools they needed to deal with life then the social problems wouldn’t be so bad, families wouldn’t fall apart as much, and kids would embrace learning and follow their dreams. I believed that an ideal way to do this is through education in schools, but was disappointed when I learned over the years that the things I thought should be considered priorities were shoved to the side to make way for test preparation. How can a child be expected to learn if they are struggling emotionally? Another huge hindrance is that teachers just don’t have enough time, support or resources to manage to the best of their ability.
I was really inspired by the courses and camps that taught me about myself and made such a huge difference in my life in middle school and high school. I was disappointed to learn that these sorts of experiences weren’t accessible to everyone and that it just wasn’t a priority in the school curriculum. I feel it is in everyone’s best interest to have access to these types of programs and activities.
Smile Inside is about advocating for personal development in schools and providing the services and resources that schools’ and those who work with youth deserve and need.
2. What do you think about the increase in bullying among today’s youth? Does Smile Inside educate youth about bullying? What about educating parents and educators about the short and long term effects of bullying? How can bullying be avoided in the future?
I find bullying heartbreaking, especially among young people. I was a student welfare coordinator in a 7-12 high school in Australia for 3 years (similar to a counselor) which gave me a greater insight on how bullying affects lives. Victims need support and coping strategies which is a part of Smile Inside’s method, but this is only a band-aid approach. There is a disturbing lack of empathy in bullies, but there are also emotional issues which cause their behavior. One of my intentions in developing the Smile Inside programs and resources was to eliminate bullying behaviors. There are a number of reasons why bullies act out and they, along with everyone else, can benefit from support, guidance and positive attention. Some of the activities emphasize that everyone deserves respect by focusing on the development of empathy. Participants are also given the opportunity to express themselves, explore their self-talk, and learn coping skills. Other activities give individuals the confidence they need to battle insecurity which is often a cause of bullying.
I would hope that all parents and educators understand the importance of dealing with the bullying issue, but this is not always the case. In schools, most teachers do their best to stamp it out but again, lack of time, support and resources work against them. Parents sometimes get involved but they can go about it in the wrong way. Smile Inside’s main aim is to educate youth, but the anti-bullying strategies are communicated to teachers, and parents in most cases.
I think a reasonable way to abolish bullying is through focused detection and intervention efforts using a Restorative Justice approach. I also think a prevention/intervention effort using a “heal the bully” approach is effective. These kids are hurting so much on the inside that causing others suffering is one way they cope with what’s going on internally. One activity I do with youth is called, “The Problem with Villains”. It gets participants working out how to rationalize bullies’ behaviors and brainstorming solutions to solve the problem in a group situation where bullies are present, but not targeted. Once bullies realize their behavior may be coming from a problem in their life they are more likely to soften and be open to help and healing. This indirect approach is more effective than the confrontational, negative attention they receive when they ‘get in trouble.’ Schools need more support and resources to tackle this issue properly. This could be done with more government funding and by creating strong partnerships with organizations that specialize in this area.
3. According to the website, “Smile Inside trains Educators, Student Welfare Coordinators, Youth Workers, Camp Counselors, Secondary School Nurses, and Chaplains to increase their effectiveness when working with groups of youth via peer observation.” What benefits have youth received as a result from Smile Inside working with people in the above fields?
Professional development is a never-ending process to become the best we can be in our field. Gaining inspiration and new ideas from fresh approaches helps these professionals to hone their skills and try new things. The youth benefit because the ones they trust are enhancing the style of their interactions with them. A new tactic just may work with a child who before, they had problems reaching.
4. How does Smile Inside help young people be true to themselves when parents, peers, society, etc. want them to be something they’re not?
The Smile Inside philosophy maintains that an individual with an authentic sense of self, social skills, and resilience will be well-equipped to face life’s challenges and find success in all aspects of life. In other words, if they know and feel confident in who they are, they can remain true to their convictions and stand up to adversity when it comes their way whether that be in the form of a parent, a peer or an employer.
The soon to be independently-published resource, Smile Inside: Experiential Activities for Self-Awareness, Ages 14-15 specifically gives youth the space to develop their sense of self. It helps them to explore their mind, needs, values, morals, perception of self, emotions, abilities, interactions with others and interests through activities, reflection, and discussion.
5. Is it easier for youths to master their behaviors and minds versus adults? What can adults learn from today’s youth in this area?
This is a difficult question to answer as everyone is unique. I am not so sure that age is a factor; some are more ready than others depending on many conditions. I do believe if young people are given access to techniques that will support their ability to master their behaviors and minds they have a definite advantage in succeeding in life.
Adults can learn so much in all areas from youth if they are willing to listen. Young people have a lot to offer and there is much to gain from their perspective. As far as learning to slow down, focus and follow our hearts, let’s hope we can be inspired by whoever is doing so, child, teen or adult.
6. What is your ‘personal philosophy’ for life?
Love, peace, and happiness. 🙂
7. Anything you’d like to add?
I am very excited to finally be publishing two resources that I have been working on since the age of 14. I have been collecting all the activities that have made a positive impact on me and have been testing, revising and creating even more since. They are in the form of handbooks for those who work with youth titled, Smile Inside: Experiential Activities for Self-Awareness Ages 12-14 and Smile Inside: Experiential Activities for Self-Awareness Ages 14-15. I am also in the process of trialing a resource for parents which is a positive reinforcement system for children, ages 5-12.
How Can Vanessa Lee and Smile Inside Help?
I’m a kid coach: In primary schools I get to see them in action in the classroom and work with them in and outside of the classroom on academics, social skills and self awareness. In the past, I have also worked with middle school aged students in relatively the same manner. At the present, I am also being contracted to work with individuals, mostly young people who are having academic, social, and emotional difficulties. Quite a few of them are in foster care or residential units.
Counseling: When I work one-on-one with young people in an academic setting whether it be at a school or private tutoring, I find that part of the job is counseling. I like to empower young people with skills that help them become who they truly want to be. If their goal is negative, I strive to steer them towards a more positive outcome through a variety of methods. Having individuals looking at their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual (if appropriate) levels of self is a wonderful base to help them realize their potential.
Meditation and Yoga: I trained as a yoga instructor and I use what I have learned to help others. Silencing the mind, using a mantra to focus, slowing the breath, creative visualization and using balancing poses to focus are all techniques that I incorporate into helping youth to learn self-awareness.
Visit Smile Inside to learn more about Vanessa Lee and her organization.