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Allison Whitaker, a multi-sport athlete, is no stranger to stress.

Grades. Athletic competitions. Moving on to college. Peer relationships. All part of the world of a high school senior who appreciates a few minutes to calm her mind.

Allison was among 12 students Friday who took advantage of the PRIDE Guided Stress Alleviation that began in January after teachers Daniel Van Winkle and Jennifer Wikan received a grant from the Bettendorf Community School Foundation. 

The class is part of Van Winkle’s work at Western Illinois University, where he is earning his master’s degree in school counseling.

The goal is to give students with chronic stress and anxiety a class where they can learn to alleviate and cope with those issues, said Van Winkle. She added that anxiety disorders affect as many as 25% of teenagers.

Students, referred from the BHS student services team, take the class in the BHS wrestling room. “Today’s students are showing a lot of stress and anxiety,” Van Winkle said. “These extreme levels are causing barriers to their education and social lives.”

Van Winkle uses techniques including mindfulness, yoga and meditation in the class. He regularly collects data on student feedback and how effective the sessions have been.

The class opens with a short meditation session to help focus the students. Then students discuss stressors in their lives.

Van Winkle, a social studies teacher and assistant girls soccer coach, generally leads the sessions. On Friday he was on crutches, recovering from meniscus surgery, so seniors Allison Whitaker and Elizabeth Park took the lead.

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Park likes calming down her mind — “I didn’t realize how much I kept going, going, going throughout the day.”

“I enjoy it,” said Whitaker. “A lot of kids come in and talk about school work, sports and out-of-school issues.”

She competes in soccer and track and expects to attend college at Northwestern University. She appreciates the sessions, “especially on game days, to clear my mind and get ready,” she said.

Friday's session comprised 10 girls and two boys, including freshman Ethan Geifman, who participated for the first time. “Guys don’t want to admit that they’re stressed out. But everybody stresses out,” he said.

At the beginning of the class, while students collected exercise mats and spread out in the wrestling room, Van Winkle asked them to put away their devices. “You get the rest of the day to be connected to technology and friends. Take this 45 minutes to be connected to yourself,” he said. “We want to continue to keep this a safe space to share all things."

He started the session with meditation. The room became quiet within minutes, with only the sound of soothing instrumental music.

Several students shared issues that created stress in their lives, including the loss of a loved one, a new job and friendship problems. “Don’t let anyone shame you into thinking your problems aren’t big deals,” Van Winkle told them.

The students did several yoga poses, including warrior and child’s poses. Afterward, they meditated again.

After the class, two students had a quiet private conversation, then embraced. Both left the room with wide smiles on their faces.

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Film critic/reporter since 1985 at Quad-City Times. Society of Professional Journalists, Broadcast Film Critics Association and Alliance of Women Film Journalists member. Member of St. Mark Lutheran Church.