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“I didn’t expect it to touch me personally as much as [it] did,” said Peggy Rubens-Ellis, who managed the Sources of Strength contest at McMurray Middle School. “It showed me that the students already have some really good coping skills” (Courtesy Photo).

As seen in the Vashon Beachcomber

Students Dig Deep to Spotlight Sources of Strength

Vashon schools been intentional about providing lessons to Vashon kids during COVID.

March 4, 2021

By Susan McCabe

For Vashon Island School District

For many, the pandemic has been an accidental teacher.

Vashon’s School District, however, has been intentional about providing lessons to Vashon kids during COVID.

Enter Sources of Strength (SOS). The SOS group at McMurray Middle School consists of four adult leaders, Peggy Rubens-Ellis from VARSA (Vashon Alliance to Reduce Substance Abuse), Lance Morgan, Kailey Pearce and Yvette Butler, joined by 31 student leaders.

The students decided a contest would motivate their peers to create and submit art that addressed tactics for coping with the pandemic. So, they devised the contest and called it “What Helps Us,” inviting McMurray students to enter their pet photography, art, poetry and music to win prizes and recognition. It turns out, however, that 11 to 14-year-olds are motivated by much more — the process of art, opportunities to talk about their feelings and the love of their pets.

SOS is not new. It’s not even a product of the pandemic. It’s a program, sponsored on Vashon by the School District and VARSA, and paid for by the Vashon Schools Foundation. It was started about five years ago by substance abuse prevention professionals who noticed an increase in youth suicides.

Rubens-Ellis took on the management of McMurray’s SOS program two years ago as an “upstream” program to build community resources proven to prevent mental illness and to be available when tragedy does occur.

It started with teachers and counselors nominating student core participants who act as “bridges,” connecting multiple friend groups — the kids everyone goes to, knowing they’ll be heard. This year, Ruben-Ellis had 31 students in the program. They meet weekly on Zoom for sessions that Rubens-Ellis called, “…one part personal issues discussion; one part fun activity and one part talk of actions we’re taking.”

The ultimate purpose of SOS is to increase people’s capacity for coping with stress and anxiety. The strategy is that when 10% of kids are energized it spreads throughout the school population.

Each year the teachers choose a six-week campaign to get kids involved. Last year it was “Trusted Adults” to help them identify protective factors in their lives. This year the campaign is “What Helps Us,” to get kids immersed in various art forms as coping tactics during the pandemic.

The idea is that no one gets through life without regularly experiencing anger, anxiety, sadness or depression. The “What Helps Us” campaign is about helping individuals to identify which of these emotions they wrestle with the most and which strengths function as healthy coping strategies for them.

These emotions are common and pervasive, but we don’t so often hear how people manage them. The campaign was designed to tell that story and give others hope that they too can discover the strength to overcome.

There were several surprise benefits from the campaign, even for Rubens-Ellis.

“I’d open my mailbox each day and it really impacted my mood to get cute dog pictures or a beautiful music piece,” she said. “I didn’t expect it to touch me personally as much as [it] did. It showed me that the students already have some really good coping skills.”

The program raised $900 at last year’s Halloween dance (when students could still do that) and group leaders chose to use that money for prizes in the “What Helps Us” campaign.

As contest entries rolled in, Rubens-Ellis realized that judging was going to be really hard. Submissions were judged on how well they stuck to the theme of “What Helps Us,” and how their artist’s statements represented their work. Judges were to choose three winners in each of five categories: Pet photography, visual art, writing, “live” [videography] and music.

“Abby’s Dog Waylon” was the first place prize-winner in the Pet Photography category of the “Sources of Strength” contest (Courtesy Photo).

Winners were announced on Feb. 12, and Rubens-Ellis noted that reaching the program goals brought its own rewards to participants. Here’s what some of the submitters had to say:

“The pandemic has been tough for me because I am really social and active, and I play sports and like to hang out with friends. I previously liked to write but I didn’t make time for it. Now I have more time to write and to do artwork.”

“I don’t usually share my work. I entered the contest for fun and because I am passionate about writing poetry.”

“I like to share my passions with others. Some people may not know what their passions are, so maybe this could give them some ideas.”

“This has been an amazing, GREAT learning experience. I’ve gotten a new perspective on contests and judging! It has also helped me deal with the pandemic and have something to work on and focus on, that is not stressful. I feel like me and my peers have helped our school be joined as one, and united.”

“It would be cool if I won, but it was fun to participate and I learned how to edit so even if I don’t win it was still very motivating.”

Every participant received feedback on their work from the judges in their category. Rubens-Ellis reported that every entry had at least one vote — a testament to the quality of the work. She added that she’s learned a lot from this year’s experience that she’ll apply to next year when the kids choose a theme for the next SOS campaign.

Find out more about the program and read its powerful mission statement at

The mission of VARSA is to reduce and prevent underage drug and alcohol use by engaging, educating and empowering the communities we serve.