Melissa Powelson is turning a tragedy into something positive for generations to come.
Powelson — formerly Johnson — is a 1988 graduate of Northern Heights High School. She furthered her education at Emporia State University, before becoming a professional development mentor and a motivational speaker. But her life changed in 2010 when her husband died by suicide.
"That year I had three speeches booked for mental health and suicide prevention," she said. "I had people at the schools I would go to asking, 'How can we do more for our students, to meet their mental health needs?' That kind of began the development of this whole big process."
Feeling the VIBE
Since 2011, Powelson has used her own knowledge in psychology and development and formed partnerships that, today, have resulted in the creation of VIBE Interactive. VIBE is an acronym for Virtual Interactive Based Education.
VIBE, according to its website, "established a long-term revolutionary digital curriculum and data analytics tier 1 approach to combat critical issues including social-emotional growth, mental health, bullying, academic failure, truancy, suicide and violence in schools."
The system works by creating age-appropriate activities educators and students can use to measure a student's mental health and help identify those who might be at risk. The earlier the factors that might be contributing to a student's difficulty are pinpointed, the sooner interventions can be put in place. It also factors in aspects such as truancy and can alert a teacher if a student is showing signs of struggling with their mental health or the social-emotional aspects of learning.
What sets VIBE apart from other such learning tools, according to COO Jodi Grover — a fellow ESU graduate who has spent nearly three decades in multiple roles within K-12 education — is the fact the data can be pulled at any time.
"The assessments are built-in so teachers can go in daily," Grover said. "A lot of these types of assessments are looked at the end of the quarter or after certain intervals of time, but with ours, instead of waiting, they can look at data on the whole student every day."
The program also does not require teachers to adopt an entirely new curriculum. VIBE can be integrated into an already existing lesson plan for students at any age level. As professionals in education themselves, the women behind VIBE wanted to make the implementation of their product as easy and seamless as possible for educators.
The research and analytics portion of the process is supported by Penn State University, with investor funding coming from Domenari Capital.
Jeanine Long, director of community and counseling services for VIBE, has a background in school counseling and clinical mental health. She said the tools provided by the product will allow teachers as well as school administrators, counselors or even parents to figure out the best way to reach positive outcomes for each individual child.
This is important for children as young as Pre-K level.
"If we can teach kids to use that tool, they will then have the ability to create an environment where they can regulate their emotions," Long said.
The VIBE platform fits hand-in-hand with the Kansas Department of Education's Kansans Can initiative, which emphasizes, in part, social-emotional learning in the classroom. Along with partner Future Service Learners, VIBE developed the "Our Future is Calling" campaign in Kansas schools in 2019.
The partnership will open the door to wrap-around service that can measure a child's mental and social-emotional well-being outside of the classroom. Powelson said the pilot program will launch in 2020, with Lyon County and surrounding schools getting in on the ground floor.
"This area is so important to me because I was raised here; my family's here," Powelson said. "This is a very important place for me to bring what I've built home."
She said with the help of grants, this will be done at no cost to the schools. Administrators and staff members who the VIBE team have spoken with have been enthusiastic about their products. She said they have heard responses such as, "How soon can you get this in our building?" at several of their stops — which have included Southern Lyon County and Madison, among others.
Where FSL comes in is in creating wrap-around services. Through the partnership, organizations such as 4-H, scouts, churches, clubs and athletic teams can also contribute to the data on children with whom they come in contact.
"The school day ends at 3," Long said. "How do we support our kids outside of school? How do we help parents know what to look for or recognize how their kids are doing?"
This, the VIBE team said, will help recognize and nurture a child's passions, along with helping steer them toward taking advantage of educational opportunities that fall in line with what they love.
Back to The Farm
Another component to that last point is what VIBE hopes will be the next phase in its growth.
Powelson's grandparents, Maxine and Delbert Johnson, started The Farm, Inc. — now TFI Family Services — near Admire in 1965. A partnership with Lyon County eventually helped make the site a long-term residential center for children in foster care. There, the children were able to participate in all aspects of life on a farm while also being active in their schools, churches and communities.
VIBE is looking to bring The Farm back to north Lyon County, offering day camps and retreats where children can further explore their talents and passions.
Currently, VIBE is working to raise funding to purchase the property, which is well-situated for maximum use by schools and groups at around 20 miles from both Emporia and Topeka, with numerous towns in between.
"This can help kids find what they're passionate about," VIBE Marketing Director Marsha Williams said. "We can help teach them life skills along with finding direction and purpose through various opportunities and trying different things. Whether it's agriculture, or animals, or welding, or carpentry, or anything else — if they don't have the opportunity to try, how do they know if they like it?"
"We can test the waters by looking at the data and giving it real meaning," Grover added. "Maybe they try something and they don't like, but if we have some place like The Farm, that's where they can find their zen; find their role in life."
This, Williams said, could also lead into valuable youth apprenticeships or internships. It could also help families save money on higher education by reducing the risk of changing majors or taking unnecessary courses.
Williams said VIBE is looking for sponsorships and donations from local businesses to help make this a reality.
"We want people to see how big something like this could be for the kids in this area," she said. "Their contributions will come back to serve them."
Grover said The Farm is where all the academic pieces to VIBE will come together with the wrap-around approach they are working to achieve.
Powelson grew up around the foster kids on The Farm, and she is excited to see all of her work and life experience come together to benefit children in Lyon County and the surrounding area.
"It's exciting for me to watch how it all takes place when something's just meant to be," she said. "It will be interesting to watch it take full effect.
"I've been through Hell and back, and I grew up with kids who had been through Hell and back. My resilience and grit came from The Farm. That's what gave me the ability to do this. Suicide gave me the heart and the passion to make it happen."