Together for Wellness
When Merrimack students need somewhere to turn, they now have an abundance of resources thanks in large part to Karen (Johnson) McCarthy ’92. A former high school teacher and the mother of three sons ages 13, 19, and 21, Karen is familiar with the many challenges that young adults face like stress, anxiety, and depression. That is why she was inspired to support student-centric health resources at Merrimack by establishing the McCarthy Student Wellness Fund.
“High school and college-aged students have always been in my heart,” explained Karen. “So, when I decided to make a major gift to Merrimack, I knew I wanted to do something that was centered around students.”
Karen knows firsthand just how important it is to feel safe, comfortable, and supported in a college environment. After her first college experience was not all that she had hoped for, Karen decided to transfer to Merrimack during her sophomore year. “There was a sense of community that I liked. It was smaller than where I had been, the people were friendlier, and it was just a better overall fit,” explained Karen. “I was more easily able to get involved. I volunteered as a class officer, a math center tutor, and I helped lead the Merrimack Outreach Experience (M.O.R.E.) retreat through the campus ministry.”
“I have so many great memories of Merrimack. It’s where I developed into an empowered young woman. I felt heard and cared about,” said Karen.
Light in the Darkness
In 2013 Karen became reacquainted with Merrimack through her niece, Lauren, a freshman at the time. Impressed by all the campus and curricular improvements, Karen had been thinking deeply about how to get more involved philanthropically. “Merrimack is deeply respectful of the giving process – they really value the importance of helping donors discern the right giving match,” explained Karen.
In the fall of 2014 that match became clear to Karen. “I had learned through my niece that there had been a suicide on campus. I immediately reached out to Ryan, my contact in the development office. I shared that I wanted my giving to help prevent this type of tragedy from happening again and ensure students were getting supported in the right ways,” said Karen. “Merrimack quickly pulled together a meeting between myself and several key faculty members and we brainstormed for a couple of hours – it was truly inspirational. Out of that meeting the idea for the wellness fund was born.”
The McCarthy Student Wellness Fund enabled the creation of the Office of Wellness Education (OWE), whose mission is to promote a campus culture in which every student has the support, education, opportunities, and encouragement to prioritize their health and wellness. From increasing awareness of mental health, suicide, and substance abuse concerns to helping identify at-risk students, the office is actively involved in facilitating healthier behavior on campus. “The goal is for students to begin to understand and embrace the six dimensions of wellness: spiritual, occupational, social, intellectual, physical, and emotional,” explained Karen.
Wellness Educator Erin Kaminski M’15 and her two graduate fellows work hands on to help students learn healthy coping mechanisms and reduce harmful behaviors like binge drinking. By working to reduce the stigma around seeking counseling, Erin and her team also help ensure Merrimack students get the professional assistance they need. “To connect with students, OWE hosts, for example, a “Love Your Body” week and a “Wellness” week. They even enlisted the Merrimack football team to give mood-boosting bear hugs at one of the events.”
“In early 2017, the OWE opened a beautiful, new space in the Sakowich Campus Center where students can not only meet with Erin, but they can also make a cup of tea, read an informational pamphlet, enjoy some aromatherapy, or access a meditation seminar on an iPad,” said Karen. “It’s just a calming, happy, peaceful place for students to unwind.”
OWE also empowers students to help other students. Thanks to support from McCarthy, Merrimack offers a Certified Peer Educator Training that teaches students how to be effective listeners and how to respond and intervene in a crisis. These peer educators have become “change-makers” on campus and help empower their peers to adopt healthy lifestyles. “It’s one thing to have a couple of people on campus that you can talk to if you need assistance. But it’s a whole new ballgame if you equip an army of students with the right support tools and techniques, and they’re out there interacting with kids in class, at meals, and at parties,” said Karen.
A Brighter Future
As a member of the College Leadership Council, Karen is actively involved in leading engagement and philanthropic activities in the Merrimack community. When she thinks about the future, she envisions an integrated health and wellness center where all Merrimack students can access the resources they need to thrive. “I would like all students to understand what it means to have emotional wellbeing and be able to advocate for themselves,” she said.