A Basalt High School Senior Uses Her Voice To Raise Awareness About Sexual Abuse And Assault
Every year around this time high school seniors in the Roaring Fork School District present their final capstone projects to their teachers, classmates and community members.
Basalt High School’s capstone coordinator, Nannette Weinhold says the projects are a chance for students to take control of their own learning and to pursue a topic they’re curious about.
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“They choose what they want to explore and it's experiential. So they actually go out and do something,” she said. “I feel very hopeful because especially during the pandemic, I've seen students really be resilient and learn how to problem solve. That's a very valuable part of their educational process.”
This year, Glenwood Springs High School senior Kelton Lee found an old 1950s Willys Jeep in a field and learned how to restore it. While another senior -- who recently experienced a suicide in her family -- decided to interview coroners in the Valley and observe an autopsy.
Kelsy Been, the Roaring Fork Schools’ Public Information Officer, says a big part of the program is mentorship. “Students work with community experts who share their expertise and help shape the project,” she said. “Through the process, students build real-world skills that ensure they are prepared to succeed in college, modern careers, and adult life.”
For example, Glenwood High School senior Lyaileen Enriquez Trujillo wants to be a counselor, and for her capstone she worked remotely with school counselor Megan Rentz at Sopris Elementary. Her final project was a series of videos she created for her peers, each one focusing on a different mental health lesson or exercise.
“I want to be a counselor because I love helping people work through their problems,” Trujillo says in her introductory video. “I’ve created four lessons for you including improving your executive functioning, remembering to go outside even though it’s winter, and also gratitude.”
Basalt High School senior Yamilet Velazquez -- who wants to study international business in college so that she can explore the world -- says her first idea for her capstone was actually to do a project about her dog, Max.
“My first thought was about animals,” she said. “And I was like, ‘Well, I really love animals. I love my dog to death. Like, we're literally best friends and we do everything together.”
But after more thought, Velazquez decided to move in a much more serious direction.
She came up with the final idea for her project when she was scrolling through the social media app, Tiktok, and saw videos of people her own age sharing their experiences of being sexually abused and assaulted.
“I spent about three to four hours just scrolling through everyone's story,” Velazquez said. “It hit really close to my heart because I can see the pain in their eyes. A lot of people go through this and we don't even know it.”
For her capstone project, Velazquez wanted to create her own interactive museum that explored themes of sexual assault, but that became impossible once the pandemic hit.
Instead, she discovered a museum exhibition called, “Is it my fault?” at the Centre Communautaire Maritime in Belgium that aims to promote awareness about sexual violence. The museum displayed the different kinds of clothes people were wearing when they were sexually assaulted -- everything from a summer dress to a police uniform to a little girl’s pajama top.
After seeing the Belgium exhibition online, she decided to incorporate it into her project. She created her own website and video presentation called, “The museum of survivors who were molested and raped.”
In her virtual presentation, Velazquez takes us on a journey from the Tiktok videos that first inspired this project, to the museum of clothing in Belgium, to her personal connection to the subject.
Like the Belgium museum, one of Velazquez’s goals is to end the myth that what you wear causes you to be sexually assaulted. As a young woman, Velazquez says she’s constantly coming up against this myth, including the time she wore a crop top in middle school.
“I was walking into the middle school doors and someone was like,‘Oh my gosh, like, are you kidding me? Like, you could get raped in that,’” she said. “I remember I told my mom and I was like, ‘I can't wear stuff that I want to wear.’”
This memory still makes Velazquez angry and she knows that her presentation could bring up a lot of strong feelings for her audience. That’s why during the part of her video where she shows the clothes hanging in the Belgium museum, she takes long pauses to give people time to reflect.
“I would stop at one picture, let music play in the background for a little bit, then go onto the next one, let music play on the background and then go to the last one,” she said. “And the last one, was a picture of a little girl’s shirt and I let the music play for a long time and then I spoke.”
In her video presentation, Velazquez then talks about how she learned in her freshman year of high school that someone in her own family she looks up to and admires had been molested as a kid.
“She was so strong for me and she showed me that even after all that you can still become the most amazing person ever,” Velazquez tells her audience in the video.
Not long after Velazquez learned about what happened to her family member, a close friend told her that she’d also been sexually abused.
“Growing up, I always told myself, like you never judge anyone by their cover,” she said. “And realizing that even the closest people to me had chapters that they hadn't said out loud to me, like, you really have to be kind of everyone you meet because you don't know what anyone's going through, what they've gone through.”
Velazquez says this friend was surprised that she chose to do her capstone on sexual assault even though she’d never been through it herself.
“They just kind of asked me, like, ‘Why are you doing this?’ Why do you care about us in a sense. Like, you didn't go through the pain, you shouldn't have to suffer with the fact that people aren't aware of what's going on,” Velazquez said. “And I responded and I was shocked. I was like, ‘It doesn't matter that I didn't go through it, it was the fact that you went through it and that I'm using my voice that you can't use.”
Velazquez says she knows what it’s like to need help and there was a moment in her life when she was deeply depressed and could’ve used someone speaking up for her.
“I was in a dark place and I didn't use my voice,” she said. “But I'm super thankful that I had that dark place. And I became the person who I am now, which is like, making sure that everyone has a voice who feels like they don't.”
Mental health has always been a big theme for seniors, says Basalt High School Capstone Coordinator, Nannette Weinhold. And with so many seniors doing their capstone projects on serious topics like sexual assault and suicide, the school district is making sure that students have access to mental health guidance and resources.
“I know at Basalt High School, they have really increased the amount of support students have for mental health,” Weinhold said.
In addition to guidance counselors, the school now has a Spanish-speaking therapist from Mountain Family Health, a counselor from the Hope Center, and recently received a grant from the Colorado Department of Education to hire prevention specialists.
While it’s not out of the ordinary for seniors to explore mental health themes in their capstones, Weinhold says she did notice a lot of people drawing from their personal experiences during the pandemic.
“The key to all of this is to have an experience that's meaningful. I do think a lot of students actually, this year more than the other years, have engaged in meaningful projects.”
For her part, Velazquez thinks this may have to dowith the fact that she and her classmates have had more alone time to reflect during the pandemic and have been craving connection.
“I think that really affected a lot of us, in that sense where we became closer as a community and we realized how much we needed each other,” she said.
With high school graduation on the horizon, this strengthened bond is something Velazquez and her fellow Roaring Fork seniors will take with them into the next chapter.
“After they've graduated and they've moved on, a lot of them realize the importance that this project really had in their lives,” Weinhold said. “I'm such an advocate for hands-on, project based learning because I know that these are the experiences that last a lifetime with students.”
Editor’s note: If you or someone you know has been sexually abused or assaulted, you can contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673. They’ll connect you with a trained support provider in your area.