MAHOPAC, N.Y.— Delaina Zerafa has struggled with mental illness and eating disorders for much of her young life. After a recent stint at a mental health treatment facility, the 19-year-old Mahopac grad began thinking of ways to raise mental health awareness for other young people. Now, she is at the helm of a newly founded nonprofit organization and attending Pace University full time. She is thriving.
Zerafa says she is feeling great these days and is excited to give back. Much of her improvement, she said, is a result of her involvement with her new organization, Strength2Survive, a nonprofit dedicated to providing peer-to-peer support for youths affected by mental illness.
“As young adults living with a history of mental illness, we have realized over the years there are few peer-to-peer led organizations in the United States,” she said. “There are many nonprofits, but little to none are run by people who have experienced what it is like to face a real-life struggle such as mental illness. We hope to inspire young adults to use their struggles for good, rather than letting them consume them.”
Zerafa has a team of six in place and each wears many hats.
Back in May, she was already hosting discussions in local classrooms in an effort to reach out to young people who hesitate to get help because of the stigma often associated with mental illness. She said meeting with area youths provides her organization with an idea of what needs they can target. Now, thanks to her organization’s social media platforms, her message is reaching further than she could have imagined.
“A big part of our organization is letting people know that there is hope through other people’s stories,” she said.
Much of the Strength2Survive Facebook page is dedicated to stories of recovery shared by the group’s followers. They share their stories, anonymously if they prefer, in up to 10 sentences and use the hashtag, #RealLifeREcovery. Zerafa said they have received stories from people as far away as Michigan.
“It’s important for people to see that people really are living in recovery and it’s not just a myth,” Zerafa said. “Real-life recovery is a thing and in order to get there it’s a lot of hard work. But it is possible to get there, so that’s what we’re basing a lot of our work in the future on.”
Zerfara wants to have meetings, starting as soon as January, and anticipate the distance radius and extend up to an hour’s drive for anyone who wishes to come.
“It’s important because no one wants to feel alone,” she said. “When people don’t talk about things they’re obviously going to feel alone. It’s important to spread awareness of things like this because it’s a very taboo topic.”
Last May, Zerafa was slated to be the subject of a documentary that shared her story and her progress; now she does not want to be the focus. She would rather the film highlight two or three people in different places along their roads to recovery.
“We changed up the plan,” she said. “There’s such a wide variety of people who struggle. It’s not just one group.”
Zerafa said that to raise awareness and support for Strength2Survive, they are planning a gala for March where they will screen the documentary. Additionally, Zerafa, who has been going on the Warped Tour (a festival of alt-rock shows) for the past four years, said that every year the festival chooses nonprofits to travel with them and she applied for Strength2Survive to be one of them.
“I did my research ad they reach almost a million people through that tour,” she said, adding that she is still waiting to hear back.
Zerafa is studying mental health counseling and psychology in a five-year master’s program at Pace University. She is also taking business classes to support her goals of continuing to manage Strength2Survive.
“It’s a lot to handle but I feel like the organization did a lot to help my recovery,” she said. “Helping others always helped me.”
Zerafa said Strength2Survive is looking for people to join its street team to host small scale events. For more information or to support Strenght2Survive, visit http://www.strength2survive.net. Find them on Facebook to see recovery stories or email them at Strength2Survive16@gmail.com.
Zerafa said she wants area residents to understand that this is a community-oriented organization and feedback is encouraged.
“I think it’s definitely important for the community to get involved,” she said. “If people have opinions we want to hear them. Everyone struggles with something, whether it’s schoolwork or mental illness—everyone struggles and it’s OK to get support for it.”