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Ward Melville High helps staff de-stress with relaxing music, soft lighting

A Three Village school district official gave a tour Sept. 17 of a wellness room at Ward Melville High School called WellVille, where staff can relax and recharge, lunch and learn or get free counseling. (Credit: Newsday / Joie Tyrrell)

District officials are touting a newly created wellness room at Ward Melville High School as a lesson in serenity, where the surroundings help teachers and staff de-stress over the course of a hectic workday.

The "WellVille" classroom, part of the wellness program in the Three Village school district, has been transformed into an "experience," with soft lighting, relaxing music and lounge chairs, school officials said. The room, believed to be unique among Long Island schools, opened this month.

"I have always believed that if you have happy, healthy teachers, that trickles down to happy, healthy children — and guess who that trickles down to? Happy, healthy parents," said Debbi Rakowsky, the district's wellness social worker who wrote the proposal for the program and designed the space.

WellVille is not open to students, but is available for all levels of staff, from teachers to security to clerical workers. There are several lunch-and-learn workshops scheduled, on topics such as nutrition, and an expert on meditation is scheduled to visit later in the year.

The space at the East Setauket school is located in a hallway sandwiched between red lockers and traditional classrooms. The motto is "Live Well. Work Well," and the room features details such as inspirational messaging, an essential oils diffuser, foot massager, salt lamps and a calming water feature.

There are puzzles, picture books and a meditation area in the space that Rakowsky describes as "Pottery Barn meets spa."

The district would not provide the cost of the program, saying the initiative was funded using a variety of revenue sources, including but not limited to grants. It is a pilot program for the 2019-20 school year, and the district will assess the need and ability to expand it to other buildings in the future, school officials said.

The model, Rakowsky said, was based on wellness centers popular in corporate culture. Her goal is to have one in all nine schools in the district, but for now staff members from throughout the system are invited to use the services. It is open daily from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Rakowsky, a certified and licensed social worker, offers free counseling to whoever wants it.

"Everyone is going through something, and if we can help support them here, that's great," said Rakowsky, who has worked as a social worker in the district for more than 30 years.

Audra Cerruto, associate dean and director of graduate programs in the Division of Education at Molloy College, said educators face all kinds of stress. She has never heard of another district creating a space such as WellVille and said the concept is "fantastic." Molloy, she said, offers a series for teachers-in-training that addresses mindfulness and wellness resources.

"It is a treat to find an opportunity to de-stress in the moment, but really the core is providing strategies, ongoing training, ongoing education about the many different stressors we have as teachers," she said.

Katie DeBella, a substitute teaching assistant, recently attended a lunch workshop on nutrition in the wellness room.

"Grounding yourself is so important during the day and we kind of lost that in today's society, so it is really cool to have a place that brings that back," she said.  

Staffer Alyssa Ward, who works in the attendance office, sunk into the oversize massage chair while on a break.

"Honestly, it has been really helpful to me for stresses that come with the job and outside of the job," Ward said. "And so anything we can bring to work with us on top of what we have here when we come in — it is just a good space to go and relax.

"I was feeling a little overwhelmed with more than just work, and I came in to recharge."

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