THE CAPE COD CHRONICLE 11-30-22 Accepting her Volunteer of the Year award from the Philanthropy Partners of the Cape and Islands last month, Sheila House told the assembly that receiving the honor was awesome.
“Or as my kids would say, ‘lit,’” she said with a laugh. The Harwich Youth and Family Services director, House was honored for her volunteer work on behalf of local teens and their families. The award was given at the annual Philanthropy Day event on Nov. 15 in Hyannis.
Philanthropy Partners gave a number of awards that day, naming the late Richard Costello of Chatham as its Outstanding Philanthropist of the year. The former owner of the Chatham Squire, Costello gave several million dollars to seven organizations that he believed in, including WE CAN, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital and the Pals for Life Foundation.
For her part, House said the honor was very unexpected. She began work in Harwich in 2000, and was focused mainly on providing direct counseling to youngsters referred to her by the high school and the police department. She spent around 20 percent of her time volunteering, helping at school dances or showing up at community events “wearing funny hats.” More than two decades later, House spends about half of her time volunteering and is a key member of a variety of committees and groups that support the Cape’s young people. Her focus is on organizations that support mental health, substance abuse prevention, nutrition and teen employment.
Even before the pandemic, teens were showing higher rates of anxiety than they did in the past. Was that because they were being better diagnosed?
“I think it’s because they’re more anxious,” House said. Today’s teens not only have all the ordinary stresses of being that age, but are increasingly having trouble sleeping and are avoiding going to school. Some teens find it harder to relate with others face-to-face, and technology plays a role in that.
“Their phones keep them connected to their friends,” but the quality of the communication is poor, particularly when teens are working through conflicts with others. “People break up on the phone sometimes,” she said.
Then came COVID-19. Following the isolation of the pandemic, with kids attending classes from home and being isolated from friends, “the mental health piece has exploded,” House said. The anxiety and difficulty with social interactions is often deepened; kids described COVID lockdown as being “grounded” for no reason, and for an indefinite time period. And it didn’t only affect teens.
“The parents were also grounded from being with their friends,” House said. Increasingly, parents need mental health referrals as well, she said. There is also an acute lack of mental health providers, with some patients having to wait two to five months before seeing a specialist. Happily, more doctor’s offices have mental health professionals on staff, “which is wonderful,” she said.
Though they’ve got a unique set of challenges, teens are incredible people, House said with a grin.
“I absolutely adore teenagers,” she said. They’re often filled with keen insights about life, and tend to have hopeful outlooks. “They’ve got a real passion for wanting to change things,” she said. Many students graduate from high school with the intent of studying climate-related issues, for instance, she said. While they face challenges each day, “their passion is not tamped down by it,” House said.
It is a pleasure to help teens find their way, but that’s only one of the reasons House enjoys volunteering.
“I especially love collaborating with all these amazing people, in Harwich and across Cape Cod,” who are working to help young people and their families, she said. “You’re not only helping the kids, but you’re working with all the people out there who are helping them as well. And the parents are central to that.”