In Franklin, high school robotics team is educating others about mental health

  • Franklin High School students Matthew Nason, Pierre Guillotte, Harrison Kaplan and Savaughna Slocum, members of the Franklin Tornadoes robotics team, pose outside their club space. Eileen O'Grady / Monitor staff

  • The Franklin High School robotics team makes mental health packets filled with resource pamphlets, fact sheets and a squishy sensory toy, to hand out to people at robotics competitions.

Monitor staff
Published: 11/21/2022 5:47:03 PM

The students on Franklin High School’s robotics team are problem-solvers by nature, but for this group of teens their desire to find solutions goes beyond troubleshooting their robot.

Members of Franklin’s FIRST robotics team were recognized earlier this month with an award for their work assembling and distributing mental health resource packets at robotics competitions to spread information about teen mental health.

The award, which they received at Battle of the Bay, an off-season robotics competition in Alton, was for “gracious professionalism,” a FIRST Robotics term that refers to helping others succeed and demonstrating respect for each other and the community.

“We live in Franklin in a community that’s got a lot of struggles, particularly mental health struggles,” said senior Pierre Guillotte, the team’s captain. “This is something good that we can do, something that people in the community can look at and say, ‘wow, that’s nice.’ Something that people can be proud of and something that can help the community.”

The team, which has about 14 members this year, started making mental health packets in 2020 when the pandemic first hit. Each packet is a Ziplock bag containing a squishy fidget toy, resource pamphlets containing the numbers of crisis centers and hotlines and mental health fact sheets. At competitions, the team keeps a bin of packets at their workstation, and during free moments they walk around and hand them out to other attendees.

The packets have been popular. The students said at one event last year they gave out 200 packets in a 90-minute period, and had to get more. Sometimes they meet people at the competitions who open up about their own mental health struggles. Last school year, at a competition with around 40 teams from around New England, the students learned that three separate teams had a former teammate die by suicide.

Sophomore Savaughna Slocum, who is the team’s safety captain, says mental health should be considered an element of team safety.

“Normally when you think of safety you think of tripping, falling and getting a Band-Aid,” Slocum said. “But we choose to advocate for mental health, because 1 in 5 teenagers show mental health concerns and only 50% get the proper treatment that they need. We want people to know it’s okay not to be okay and want them to be more comfortable reaching out if they need the help themselves or helping someone in need to get the help they need.”

Mental health is a topic that holds significance for many team members. For sophomore Harrison Kaplan, who had a cousin die by suicide, it’s a way to offer support to others who might be struggling.

“This could save somebody else from having the same thing happen to them,” Kaplan said.

The mental health packets are far from being the first community service project the robotics team has taken on. During the 2018-2019 school year, the club created Franklin High’s Karma Korner, a free, anonymous supply room full of donated clothes, toiletries and school supplies for students to take. In the winter, the team collects coats to provide to students who need them.

“One of the biggest things that we try to instill in our students is that your robot is like 40% of what FIRST is about,” said paraprofessional Leda Guillotte, the club’s advisor. “FIRST is all about developing STEM skills and soft skills they don’t get within the classroom. They learn to write business plans, to do safety plans, how to get along with people and to network and to do outreach and have impactful, long-standing relationships within their team family and their communities.”

The students said they’re aware of some robotics teams from well-funded schools that travel to volunteer in other countries. Franklin’s team feels they can make plenty of difference in their own town.

“Unfortunately we don’t have the fundings for that,” explained sophomore Matthew Nason, the team’s co-captain. “So we do it in the community so we can still help.”

With the help of Franklin Savings Bank, the team purchased a washer and dryer for the school, so students can launder their clothes if they need it.

The team was also the driving force behind the addition of six new STEM classes at Franklin High, including computer science, manufacturing and machine tool math.

The team already has their sights set on their next endeavor: raising money to buy an automated external defibrillator (AED) device to bring to competitions, and to get their team members first-aid certified. They are looking for a donor willing to cover half the costs of the AED, while they fundraise the other half. Franklin Superintendent Dan LeGallo has agreed to cover the costs of the team’s certification.

“It is a robotics team, but the outreach is important to us,” Pierre Guillotte said. “As we’ve seen over the years, small changes we’ve made in Franklin have affected the entire Lakes Region. It’s something that we figured that we could do to better ourselves and the community.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be contacted anytime by dialing 988.

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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