LITTLE FALLS, NJ - They gathered hand-in-hand to spread the message of acceptance through a stigma-free environment.
The Little Falls School District and the Township of Little Falls held their first ever joint event, entitled “Hand-In-Hand,” on Oct. 27, in honor of the town's participation in the "Stigma-Free" initiative. Approximately 500 students, along with staff and council members, joined in the newly created event.
The Stigma-Free initiative is a nation-wide campaign from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which aims to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. It also encompasses addiction. NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. Throughout the state of New Jersey, communities have begun planning and participating in events in order to spread the Stigma-Free message.
The move to establish Little Falls as a Stigma-Free community is being spearheaded by Councilwoman Maria Martini Cordonnier. As school district liaison, she and Tracey Marinelli, district superintendent, attended a Stigma Free event at a school in Morris County this past year, which was held through the Morris County Stigma-Free Communities initiative, a countywide program, that aims to eradicate the stigma associate with mental illness and substance use disorders.
The Borough of Woodland Park also recently began a Stigma-Free Task Force. Founded last year, it's comprised of various residents, health care providers, educators, business owners, elected officials, clergy, law enforcement, fire and first aid volunteers, library staff, and others working together to bring awareness to the conditions of mental health. The group aims to also provide education, information and assistance to those who suffer from mental illness.
"We attended the annual event in Morris County that they've been running for about four years. and we wanted to do something as well because they're really dong a great thing," said Cordonnier.
On a sunny fall day, students and staff from Schools No. 1, which houses grades fifth through eighth grades and No. 3, which houses third and fourth grades, gathered in front of the municipal building and after walking hand and hand from their respective schools.
"Students wore the Stigma-Free T-shirts they created and made individually," said Cordonnier.
Cordonnier added that students and staff of School No. 2, which houses Pre-k through second grades, held their own Stigma-Free event at the school's playground.
"They also wore T-shirts they created," she explained. "The students made giant circles at each event, holding hands, and chanted in unison, 'Hand-In-Hand, we promise to be kind to each other and Stigma Free."
The newly formed initiative may continue to spawn annual events, according to Cordonnier.
"It was a terrific event and so wonderful to see the message spread," she reported during the Oct. 30 council meeting. "I want to thank Superintendent Marinelli, principals and teachers for the great coordination of this event."
Marinelli felt the event was worthwhile and part of an important initiative.
"Being stigma-free is something that is so unbelievably important," she explained. " Without support and acceptance, our students, neighbors, colleagues, family, and friends who battle mental illness feel lost and alone. With the support of our staff, parents, students, the Board of Education, Little Falls Police Department, Mayor Damiano and council members, we did it. Together we made our 'Hand-In-Hand' event a beautiful one, that may have saved a life. What an amazing day!"
Mayor James Damiano also commented on the event.
"The 'Hand-In-Hand' event with the schools is just the beginning of Little Falls becoming a Stigma-Free Community," he said. "Bringing awareness to mental health issues and eliminating the stigmas that have previously been associated with them is crucial in assisting the community members to live a healthy, happier life, and may provide the assistance needed to get someone the help they need."
Cordonnier reflected on the recent events covered by the township.
"Our Little Falls community marked Breast Cancer Awareness Month as well, including raising awareness to the issue of domestic violence this month," she noted. "We ended the month with our schools and township affirming that we are Stigma-Free with a great event. It is so important to teach our children tolerance at an early age. I want to also thank Mayor James Damiano, Police Chief Steven Post, and our local police for their support and coordination for all the events this month."