Jessica adores kids.
“I love the way their minds work,” said the 28-year-old Winnipegger. “They’re just so naturally curious and uninhibited. They’re fun and creative – they’re just great human beings.
“They’re just so many things that I aspire to be every day.”
Today, Jessica is fulfilling her ambitions and studying to become an elementary school teacher.
But for a long time, those things she aspired to be every day – uninhibited, curious, and free – seemed impossibly far from her reach.
For two years, severe anxiety and other mental health issues forced Jessica to confine herself to her small apartment, shut out from the world, where she lacked the lifeblood of community, comfort, and care.
“I didn’t think that I would ever be able to reintegrate myself back into society,” Jessica recalled. “I had severe anxiety and agoraphobia … and I was deeply depressed because I thought my whole life was going to be that way.”
Jessica knew she wanted to break free, and she knew instinctually what she needed to succeed.
“I knew that I needed human interaction,” she remembered. “Human connection is the connection that helps us move forward in life, especially when we’re struggling.”
For Jessica, though, that was much easier said than done as she battled relentlessly with her anxious mind.
“The hardest thing is to just try to connect,” Jessica said. “The average population has no idea what you’re going through and how to actually connect with you and understand (you) – but it’s crucial. It’s what we crave when we’re in the hardest places.”
Through a suggestion from her social worker, Yardena, Jessica discovered Level Up! – an innovative program offered through United Way Winnipeg donor-supported agency Resource Assistance for Youth, which helps young people develop independence and career skills.
Level Up! offers seven weeks of paid classroom training sessions, followed by 16-week work placements for youth ages 18 to 29. Participants are paired with mentors to inspire a path toward permanent employment or post-secondary education.
While Level Up! sounded like a lifeline for Jessica, she said it still took a huge leap of faith to reach out of her comfort zone and into the unknown of a new beginning.
“It can be the scariest thing in the world because of whatever’s going on in your mind,” Jessica recalled, adding even though her anxiety tried to fight against it, she wasn’t willing to let the chance slip by.
“The opportunity was there for me, and I had to take that step.”
So, with all the spirit of those uninhibited and curious children she admires so much, Jessica took that first step.
And once she walked through the door at Level Up!, Jessica said she realized however hard it had been to get there, she was making the right decision.
“I went and I sat down, and I looked around me. Everyone kind of introduced themselves – I was able to do that,” she recalled. “I could tell that everyone had their own story and everyone was there because they’d been through hardships and they wanted to get their lives back on track. For me, that was affirming – that I wasn’t separate.
“Personally, it just gave me so much strength.”
One of Jessica’s assignments was to create a PowerPoint presentation of what she hoped to do with her life. Her love of kids – and newfound confidence in herself – led her to wonder if she could become an elementary school teacher.
“That was kind of a really scary thought … but I thought it,” she remembered.
Level Up! staff and mentors were thrilled about the idea and offered to do whatever they could to help, giving Jessica information about the Tuition Waiver Scholarship and providing a reference letter for her university application. Yardena also assisted with bursaries and scholarships to make Jessica’s dream a reality.
“Learning skills and having small interactions with people was the opportunity I needed to show myself that I could function somewhat normally despite my inner struggle, and having a purpose meant the whole world to me,” she said.
Now, Jessica thrives in her second year at University of Winnipeg. She’s studying to become an elementary school teacher, where she can connect with the kids who motivate her to live her best life, despite any challenges anxiety may create for her.
“While I still struggle with mental health issues to this day, I have found that the symptoms are more manageable, as I have a reason to get up in the morning and I am so excited to have tasks to complete,” she said, adding without the support of her community – those precious human connections she craved during those weeks and months while isolated in her apartment – she would not be on her way to fulfilling her dream.
“The Level-Up! program gave me the confidence I needed to realize that I could do more than I thought I was capable of,” she said. “I am so extremely grateful for all of the people who have supported me throughout my life, and I want to pay tribute to them so that they know how valuable they are.
“I want other people to have hope and to be pointed to the right resources.”