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Navigating the turbulent seas of adolescence

This week's Mid-Week Mugging features Leisha Zamecnik and Common Compass

There is likely no more confusing yet formative stage in life’s fragile journey than adolescence and the goal of Leisha Zamecnik and her team at Common Compass is to equip young people with the tools they need to navigate that leg of their journey.

“Our mission as an organization is to empower students and educators to show empathy and engagement to those in their school and their world,” said Zamecnik. “That’s at the heart of everything we do.”

They offer a variety of retreats, workshops and a series of scheduled modules that focus on social and emotional wellbeing, leadership and mental health.

“There is no silver bullet of course,” said Zamecnik. “There are just kind of pieces of the problem that we try to work on. These days we talk a lot about our physical health. We talk about exercise, eating well and getting the proper sleep but we don’t necessarily talk about our social and emotional wellbeing.”

Zamecnik’s own life journey began in 1984 in London, Ontario.

“I am married to my wonderful husband Jay and I have an 18-month-old little boy named Oliver who keeps me on my toes and is the light of my life,” she said. “My dad Greig Zamecnik actually still lives in Guelph. My mom lives in Southwestern Ontario and my brother, my only sibling, lives out in California.”

Zamecnik graduated from the University of Guelph in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and psychology.

“I am a very proud University of Guelph Gryphon alumni,” she said. “I always will be a Gryphon that’s for sure. I did a lot of work with student government and got very much involved with an organization called Meal Exchange connecting university students with the issue of local hunger and food security here in Guelph.”

The experience set her on a clear personal and professional trajectory.

“That was a really pivotal moment of my life,” she said. “I was realizing that that is what I wanted to do – that I could really make a career out of working to help people and trying to better the community.”

She ended up working with the national office of Meal Exchange directing fundraising campaigns and supporting chapter leaders at universities across Canada.

“I did that for a couple years and very much enjoyed it then I decided to go back to school to get my masters degree in social work at the University of Toronto,” said Zamecnik. “That’s where I started to focus more specifically on youth mental health.”

She graduated in 2011 and worked with a variety of non-profit organizations before starting Common Compass in 2013.

“We’re a provincially incorporated organization so we have primarily worked with school boards in Southern and Southwestern Ontario,” she said. “We have a partnership with the Wellington Catholic District School Board and Our Lady of Lourdes, St James and Bishop Macdonell are the three high schools we are working with this year.”

Community Compass has steadily grown over the past five years and is currently working with eight school boards in Ontario with 40 programs booked, so far, for this school year.

“At the core for every human being and even more so for young people is the need for a sense of belonging,” she said. “Young people are always balancing, how do our choices impact that sense of belonging while also maintaining our sense of identity as a person of conscience, as a person that does good things in the world.”

The focus on empathy and building transferable social skills through arts-based activities, role play, team competitions and group discussions help to nurture a safe environment at school, in the community and online.

“Students learn how to identify mental health challenges among their peers and also when they might be struggling or having a difficult time coping,” she said. “They learn how to cope with difficult situations and that is why I think it is so important to be bringing this to schools because this is where young people are. They are at school.”