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  • Fonda Tokushige, LCSW

Life Coaching for High Schoolers

High school teens and their parents have become hyper-focused on making choices based on pleasing college admissions officers rather than engaging in their academics and extracurricular activities out of genuine interest and self-discovery, which more naturally leads to self-discovery and the pursuit of higher education. As responsible and caring parents, we often exhaust ourselves with the all-consuming process of getting our children into college, preferably one with a name brand. Unfortunately, we neglect to cultivate critical values – such as grit, perseverance, hard work, empathy, prudence, and resilience – that are fundamental to living a successful life after high school. Let’s face it. Navigating through life is tough.

As a parent of two teenage daughters, I was very driven to make sure that neither of my daughters’ high school experiences solely revolved around being marionettes for the college admissions officers. At their high school graduation, I want both of my daughters to look back and say, “Eff yeah! I am really proud of who I’ve become, and I’m ready to tackle whatever’s next,” or, at least, something along those lines. So, like any pseudo-tiger mom would do, I married my passion and skill to cultivate human potential and academic prowess and birthed the “Youth Work Groups.” Kailah, my oldest daughter, and a few of her unwitting and extremely compliant friends were my first cohort of guinea pigs.

Introducing Philanthropy

After Kailah matriculated from middle school, I was determined to supplement my girls’ education and extracurricular activities with something that would teach them to think outside of themselves. During the summer just before high school, along with the PSAT prep, I developed a life coaching program for high school students to educate them about healthy communities and their roles and responsibilities as citizens. We started off by having Socratic discussions about our local communities, challenging perceptions about the “ghettos” and those that we “othered.” We had conversations about inter-generational poverty, education and opportunities offered in their schools versus inner city schools, and so much more. Then, I posed the question to the group: What are YOU going to do for your local community?

They quickly came up with a name to call themselves – MIP, which stood for a group that has Meaning, Intention, & Purpose – and then, they got down to work. They each researched populations they wanted to serve and local non-profits they might want to partner with. Admittedly, it wasn’t my first choice (because I’m personally invested in issues revolving around mental illness and homelessness), but, after some debate, MIP decided they wanted to collaborate with the Starlight Children’s Foundation. After all, it was THEIR choice because it was THEIR project.

This is where my Master of Social Welfare degree and networking skills came in handy. With my guidance, MIP drafted a Letter of Intent and mailed it out with their fingers crossed. I may have sent a few emails and had a conversation or two behind the scenes, but eventually, Cortney Szlemp, the Manager of Annual Giving at Starlight at the time, reached out and invited the group to their corporate office to investigate their intentions.

Team MIP at the corporate office of The Starlight Foundation in Los Angeles, CA

We prepped. We learned how to give a proper handshake and make sustained eye contact. We rehearsed. We calmed our nerves and eventually made it out to Starlight’s corporate site to meet Cortney, who welcomed us as if were were major donors. The young group of freshmans and sophomores I was working with nervously explained that they were looking to partner with the Starlight Children’s Foundation to collectively give back to their local community. The meeting ensued and resulted in a partnership. My five young mentees, who came together to form MIP, agreed to raise $5,000 to fund a mobile entertainment unit for the pediatric unit at the Providence Little Company of Mary in Torrance, CA, because they could not resist the opportunity to support Starlight’s mission to serve children with chronic illnesses.

This is when it got a little hairy. At first, raising $1,000 each didn’t seem that hard, but then, reality hit. “I asked my friends and their parents, but they said no.” “I asked everyone I could ask.” “I’ve already asked my family for money for another fundraiser. I don’t want to ask for more money.” “I’m too busy to do another fundraiser.” “I’ve got this.” I’ve got that.” My mentees wanted to throw in the towel, but I wasn’t having any of that. My response to the group was, “It’s always easy to start something. It’s really hard to finish. We ARE going to finish.” (Thank goodness the parents backed me on this one!)

Just as much as there was some finger pointing, venting, and frustration, there was also a lot of growth, ownership, and dedication to finish what they had started. A few of the group members had to acknowledge that they would not be able to raise $1,000 and looked to the other members for support. Those other members of the group stepped up to raise beyond their initial goal of $1000.

Even with the adjustment of expectations and goals, MIP still fell short of their goal months into their fundraising efforts. That’s when they started to look to local LA-based businesses for support. They developed a pitch, which got better each time they gave it. In just 4-months, MIP, comprised of your everyday public high school students, raised a total of $5,727 dollars and accomplished donating the mobile entertainment unit, along with other requested goods, to brighten the hospital experiences of children with chronic illnesses.

There may have been periods of doubt and grumbling (especially behind my back), but they were all smiles at the dedication ceremony held at the pediatric unit of the Providence Little Company of Mary.

What did they get out of this? A LOT. A never give up attitude. Finish what you start mentality. A sense of accomplishment. New relationships. Opportunities to think outside the box. A chance to do something different. A precedence for future high school endeavors. And the list goes on and on.

Team MIP at the Dedication Ceremony at the Providence Little Company of Mary in Torrance, CA

Life Coaching For High Schoolers?

Having taken Kailah and a group of her friends through this process, I realized that high schoolers (and their parents) need coaching too. High school is tough. There’s so much to learn and persevere through academically, intra-personally, and socially. There’s figuring out the hows and the whens of testing – PSAT, SAT, ACT, SAT II subject testing, AP testing. (Makes me want to scream just listing all the tests.) Then, there’s doing well in school and juggling in Honors and Advanced Placement classes, if possible. There’s also working in extracurricular activities – maybe lettering in sports or joining the speech & debate team. Don’t forget volunteering. It’s a whirlwhind that our kids can get lost in. Some guidance, although not necessary, may make the high school experience more manageable and even enjoyable. (Word of Warning: It may not feel manageable and enjoyable in the moment, which is why you just take one step at a time one moment at a time.)

While guiding Kailah and different sets of her friends through different iterations of these Youth Work Groups, I’ve coached them on tracking their grades, developing a standardized testing schedule and target scores, and creating curriculum vitaes to track their accomplishments and help them stay focused on the path to discovering themselves. It has been incredibly rewarding for my mentees and their families.

Since my motto is #workhardplayhard, we juggle in fun activities too. Just as much as my mentees are learning to give everything they’ve got to whatever they’re focused on, they’ve learned it’s okay to tap out and take a break whenever needed.

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