Thurston sophomore Mystikal Haak, kneeling front right, was nominated by her teacher Mr. Ritter, kneeling left, for the 2022 Sources Showcase Peer Leader award. She’s one of 10 Oregon students to win it.

Over the school year, Haak and her classmates have produced seven “Care and Connect” videos that highlight ways peers can ease stress and ask for help when times get tough. Haak was honored for her work as editor of the series and for using her “words, art, music, influence, activities, and collective power to be an agent of change.”

“We give coping mechanisms to help people to find a safe place, safe person, safe activity, to help them from going into a darker state of mind,” Haak said. “We were put in SOS because we were seen by our freshman teachers as leaders, and we could be seen as people to listen from.”

In the wake of another deadly school shooting in Texas, Haak was reminded of what happened at Thurston High School 24 years ago last week. On May 21, 1998, Thurston High freshman Kip Kinkel fatally shot two classmates and wounded two dozen more on campus.

“I’ve had problems with being in dark states of mind,” Haak said. “It’s nice to be a person someone else can lean on. And I see that connection is really important, especially after everything that’s made that hard these last couple of years.” 

William Ritter, an English/Mythology teacher who runs the Sources of Strength program at Thurston High, nominated Haak for the award. 

“We’ve got a lot of phenomenal students this year, all of them willing to step up. But Mystikal is head and shoulders above the bunch,” Ritter said. “She’s welcoming to new students. She’s one of the best at just jumping in and doing what she can. She comes in during her free time to finish things that didn’t get done in class. And on top of that, she wants to be a member of a global community in similar healthy ways.” 

The 10th grader is personally doing things to make herself a better person too. She’s teaching herself American sign language, Korean and taking courses in Japanese. “It’s just who she is. She’s always learning, helping and working on herself,” Ritter said. 

SOS is a statewide initiative to bring conversations about mental health into the classroom. The program’s goal is to recognize that mental health and emotional health are essential and often problematic on campus, Ritter said. 

The best-practice prevention project is designed to “harness the power of peer social networks” to change “unhealthy norms and culture” and ultimately “prevent suicide, bullying, and substance abuse.” SOS is supported by the Oregon Health Authorities Big River program to prevent youth suicide.  

“Rather than leaning into the dark, depressing statistics about self-harming and suicide. (SOS) focuses on the upstream and helping to catch people before they get to that point,” Ritter said. 

Haak was honored at a virtual event on Thursday, May 26. Renee Roman Nose, a Native American student success coordinator with the Oregon Department of Education, opened the event with a poem about the tragedy in Texas earlier this week and words of encouragement for the winners. 

“It’s vital that we make a difference. And that’s what we’re here to celebrate. We’re here to celebrate people who make a difference every day. These students are superheroes, and superheroes don’t always wear capes, a lot of times, they wear blue jeans and tennis shoes,” Roman Nose said. “It’s vital for us to remember and to acknowledge the strengths that are in the people around us, the people we’re honoring today. What a gift they are to our communities. These people go above and beyond.” 

Shana Hostetler with Oregon Health Authority also had kind words for the students. “I’m just incredibly grateful to all of you adults for making beautiful spaces in our kids’ schools and finding ways to creatively bring love into the classroom,” Hostetler said. “That can be really hard and often thankless. So, thank you. Thank you for filling my heart with joy and gratitude for the ways in which you’re making the world better.” 

In her acceptance speech, or text, rather, due to the virtual format of the event, Haak thanked Ritter for “making her take this class.