Valeria "Val" Walters joined the team at the Ryan Bartel Foundation as the nonprofit's executive director several weeks ago.
The coronavirus pandemic is providing a tumultuous time for teens who were already facing many challenges. The Ryan Bartel Foundation has created ways to reach teens who would normally come to "The Fort," their community space.
The Times-Mirror sat down with Walters -- virtually -- to discuss her new role with the Ryan Bartel Foundation and how they are handling this challenging time.
Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
Prior to joining the Ryan Bartel Foundation on March 9, I served as the executive director of Committee for Dulles, a nonprofit that supports and encourages the growth of Washington Dulles International Airport. I have also served as a public advocate for local transportation and economic development projects in the region as well as having served on the board of both the Dulles Regional Chamber of Commerce and StoneSprings Hospital. I live in Loudoun County with my husband, Jeff, and our two teenage daughters.
Why were you inspired to work at the Ryan Bartel Foundation?
I have enjoyed working with nonprofits. There is an infectious joy that you get from working every day on something you care deeply about. I was especially attracted to the Ryan Bartel Foundation because as a mom of two teenage girls, the mission of preventing youth suicide through awareness and educational programs is one that really spoke to me. I have experienced the devastation that comes from suicide. If I can be part of an organization that creates an open and accepting dialog with our teens about mental health, I can’t think of a more rewarding place to be.
What are some of your goals for the foundation?
The Ryan Bartel Foundation has done so much already in a short space of time. My goals are straightforward. I want to preserve the legacy that Suzie and Ben Bartel started in memory of their son. I will do so by continuing to increase brand awareness of the Ryan Bartel Foundation and share our mission that is grounded in resiliency, acceptance and hope.
While tackling this new social distancing environment, I want to ensure we remain relevant by continuing to make connections with teens in new and innovative ways.
Given the current situation with the coronavirus pandemic, how will the foundation alter its programs and outreach?
One of my first actions as the executive director was to advise the board to cancel upcoming in programs and events, including a large fundraiser. This was especially difficult because our programs were based on in-person interactions.
We had to pivot quickly. Rather than feel dismayed, we accepted that the social distancing environment created opportunities for us to continue and expand our outreach in new ways. Together as a team we recognized that schools shut down, social distancing and constant COVID-19 pandemic news required us more than ever to be engaged and continue our course. To address this adversity, we launched FORTitude, the online version of the FORT, as a way to stay connected with our teens via a series of posts, videos and commentary to support them and their families and help them get through this time with strength, positivity and hope. We’re also about to launch FORTitude for Parents in April, an online weekly panel discussion by mental health experts where parents can participate and get answers to their questions.
What would you say to a teen who is experiencing stress right now? How can you help?
First, I’m not a mental health professional, but I am a mom and friend. The most important message right now is to acknowledge teens and their feelings. This is an unprecedented time. We are all trying to hold on to what our normal was before COVID -19.
Walking the halls of your school, playing sports or music, going to practice and rehearsals are all on hold. You didn’t even get to say goodbye to friends, teachers and coaches. I see you ... this is all sad and confusing.
We are all at home trying to work, learn and adjust to being together all the time -- adapting to a new normal. Social distancing is hard for everyone, even if you like being home with your family, simply being told you can’t go out makes you want to go out even more.
But this is your time to pause, reflect and create a new normal; it will be different, but in some ways perhaps better than before. You are the artist, writer, composer and creator. Create your own masterpiece. Be grateful for your past, it made you who you are today, but it shouldn’t define who you can be tomorrow. I’m excited to see what new innovations you will develop that will define our new normal.
We are all a little anxious during this time of the pandemic I think it’s important to empower yourself with knowledge. Make sure that you are getting information from credible sources such as the Loudoun County Health and Human Services site, UNICEF and the World Health Organization sites to get information. Knowledge is strength over anxiety and the unsureness we are all experiencing. Stay strong.
Connection are so important right now. Reach out and connect with family and friends virtually. Invite friends to a virtual coffee hang out or join an online gaming group. Your tribe needs you, be a good friend and check on each other. You can always come to the Ryan Bartel Foundation Instagram and see what we are doing.
Lastly, don’t forget to ask for help. Sometimes situations can feel overwhelming. Remember you are amazing and that asking for help doesn’t mean you’re weak, it shows our human side and allows us to truly connect with others.
For more information, visit ryanbartelfoundation.org.