This nonprofit promotes physical activity to strengthen the emotional and mental wellbeing of Indy’s kids.
Why Aren’t You Smiling Inc. (or WAYS) is an Indianapolis-based nonprofit founded and organized by Mavis Washington, who now serves as executive director. The idea for the organization came out of a tough period in Washington’s life — a family crisis she unexpectedly found herself enduring when her son, Armand, was suddenly incarcerated.
“After his arrest, Armand actually called us and started sharing with me and my husband his challenges with depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide,” Washington says. “We had no idea he was dealing with these issues. ‘Who is this person on the other end of the line telling me he had secretly suffered all this time?’ I thought. You could say that this event, along with his revelation, changed everything for us.”
To help others, Armand framed WAYS while still incarcerated, so as to provide resources and outlets for youth facing the same issues he had been dealing with while growing up. WAYS organizes sports, counseling, field trips, and other activities geared to assist youth struggling with a variety of mental health challenges, ranging from self-esteem and behavioral issues to depression.
“Even just an extra hour of activity can make a difference in a young person’s life, especially if they are dealing with some of these problems in secret,” Washington says. “Our programs, which are meant to be fun for the kids, give them a safe space to communicate their thoughts, build self-esteem, and help them recharge for individual, social and academic success.”
So far, most of the activities emphasize basic movement and sports. According to Washington, physical activity can dramatically shift one’s mental health. “Exercise can be a natural way to work with mild to moderate depression,” she says. Both boys and girls in a range of ages participate in the movement sessions, which feature clinics centering on fun physical exercises or sports, such as basketball, soccer and football. However, the organization has expanded to include less intense activities, like guitar lessons and yoga, and other things children who might be more adventurous might enjoy, like kayaking trips and boxing sessions.
At the same time, there is an endearing connection linking the children to the organization. “The kids will often write letters to my son, and he will encourage them and tell them things to motivate them down a different path,” Washington says. “I could read you some of these letters, they are so moving. But they make me cry sometimes! He cares about the kids so much, and the children are able to talk to someone who has experienced what they might be experiencing now. It really is something special.”
Though WAYS is currently limited to the immediate Indianapolis area, Washington hopes to continue growing the nonprofit and reaching out to more Hoosier kids experiencing struggles with mental and emotional health — sometimes unseen and unknown by their families and friends, like her son, Washington points out.
To learn more about WAYS or to donate to their cause, visit wayswesmile.org.