Youth Leadership Conference aimed to shatter the stigma of mental illness

PHOTO PROVIDED Seniors who attended the Pass It Along conference.

By Laurie Gordon
SPARTA – Pass It Along held its 18th Annual Youth Leadership Conference, at Sussex County Technical School on Thursday, Oct. 3 from a.m. to 2 p.m.
Since July, Pass It Along’s Youth Leadership Conference Committee has been planning the event, designing an introduction and closing, gathering guest speakers, and creating the workshops in which attendees participated. The group of student from various local school districts, are members of Pass It Along, and were selected specifically to participate in the formation of the event.
This year, the Youth Leadership Conference Committee formulated a program to inform colleagues of mental health awareness. The theme of the event was entitled, “Shatter the Stigma.” Throughout the day, a variety of workshops were offered, all surrounding the topic of mental health awareness and the significance of encouraging mental health.
Grace Sander is a Senior at Sparta High School. This was her fourth and final Youth Leadership Conference.
“Because of this,” she said,” It was incredibly bittersweet! My fellow committee members and I have been working on this day since July through contacting guest speakers, planning introductions to get attendees inspired, and researching more about mental health as that was our theme for the day.”
Sander said, “The topic 'Shatter the Stigma' revolves around breaking down that misconception that living with mental health conditions in some way makes you less powerful or valid. It was crucial to those of us involved that everyone left with the message; mental illness/health problems in know way equate to lacking leadership qualities. Being a leader doesn’t mean being the epitome of strength or perfection, it is about lifting up the people around you and fighting these battles and making change together. I am incredibly proud of all the work we accomplished and although it feels weird to say I can’t return next year, I know Youth Leadership Conference is being left in amazing hands through The teens and advisers who still remain.”
Kate Fontes is also a senior at Sparta High School and has been doing the Youth Conference since her freshman year. She was also part of the group that met every Monday since July to plan the conference.
“We worked together to completely plan the day,” she said. “This involved planning the theme of the day, reaching out to keynote speakers, preparing speeches, etc. As a member of the introduction group, I was given the opportunity to introduce the day and explain a bit about Pass it Along to everyone. This conference was incredibly special because the day was focused on 'Shattering the Stigma' of mental illness. It was so important to all of us that the students who attended left the conference with a better understanding of mental illness, and the fact that it is not something that anyone should be ashamed of. Mental illness is so common, especially in teens. We wanted the attendees to know that ones mental illness does not define them. I think the day was such a success. And I think this was one of our best conferences yet.”
At the conference, students from various local schools were mixed amongst each other prior to beginning the day. They participated in various workshops that had been selected and planned by the Youth Leadership Conference Committee, aiming to provide several approaches to mental health awareness. Attendees also partook in several service projects throughout the day, with which they can bring back to their school community.
Schools in attendance of this year’s event include Sparta High School, Newton High School, Wallkill Valley Regional High School, High Point Regional High School, Kittatinny Regional High School and North Warren Regional High School.
Workshops included: Change Direction, NAMI (Ending the Silence), Limitlessness and Body Positive.
The Youth Conference would not have been possible without the generous support from Thor Labs, as well as the Sussex County Art and Heritage Council. Pass It Along would also like to thank Sussex County Technical School for providing the space for this year’s event.
About Pass It Along
Pass It Along is a not-for-profit organization serving the northern New Jersey counties of Sussex, Morris, Essex and Warren. Pass It Along is committed to helping teenagers become confident, compassionate and resilient through leadership, volunteerism and self-discovery. For more information and to view all of the programs Pass It Along has to offer, please visit