First lady Jill Biden visits Saginaw Chippewa center to discuss youth mental health

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

One man choked up as he spoke about his family taking two children into his home after their mother lost her struggle with substance abuse as the nation's first lady held a listening session in Michigan on Sunday on youth mental health.

Participants of the session at the Ziibiwing Center in Mount Pleasant talked about their experiences involving mental health and trauma.

Biden, a community college professor, mostly listened and spoke intermittently, according to pool reports of her visit. She mentioned that she also has seen the mental health effects of the pandemic firsthand.

“I’ve seen that in my own classroom,” she said. “Many of them have lost relatives to COVID. I wanted to come see this program, because I said to my staff, ‘What are we going to help the teachers?’ We want to do the right thing by our students and by our families.”

First lady Jill Biden claps after a dancing performance during her visit to the Ziibiwing Center in Mt. Pleasant, Mich. for a listening session focused on youth mental health with members of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021.

Biden also made stops in Detroit, where she was the guest of honor Sunday evening at an annual dinner for the oldest Jewish educational institution in the state.

She joined U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy in Freeland to visit the Ziibiwing Center, a cultural center and tribal museum that honors the ancestors of the Ojibway.

They joined members of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe at 1:30 p.m. for the 40-minute listening session on youth and mental health.

On the road leading into the center, a small group of protesters held signs that said, “TRUMP WON” and “#FJB.”

Biden and Murphy were greeted outside the center by Tim Davis, chief of Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe; Melissa Isaac, director of Education/Project AWARE; Dr. Kehli Henry, Project AWARE Coordinator; and two members of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Youth Council.

A group of about a dozen Chippewa tribe members performed a traditional ceremonial greet featuring dancing, singing and drums, outside the Ziibiwing Center.

First lady Jill Biden visits the Ziibiwing Center in Mt. Pleasant, Mich. for a listening session focused on youth mental health with members of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021.

She asked staff from Project Aware to explain what they are doing to help students with mental health and loss. They told her therapy groups were used for issues like social anxiety, and they provide comfort dogs for children in schools.

Students also are provided with “calming corners” in the classroom, where they can move temporarily to take a mental health break while still listening to the teacher, pool reporters said.

Biden said some of the money from the American Rescue Plan during the pandemic was provided to teachers. She said teachers should be trained in prioritizing mental health.

She spoke about practices the staff at the college where she teaches take to support each other. She also talked about the importance of adding positive elements into her students’ lives.

“We’re finding positive ways to help our children, to help our students,” she said.

At the end, Murthy asked everyone to share what gives them hope. 

First lady Jill Biden shakes hands with those greeting her as she visits the Ziibiwing Center in Mt. Pleasant, Mich. for a listening session focused on youth mental health with members of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021.

“Our mental health problem is so great and the needs are so great, especially after this pandemic,” the first lady shared. “I knew Joe would see that and come up with this plan to give more money to mental health, and that’s what he pledged to do. That’s what gives me hope — that our nation is starting to heal.”

Tribal members gave the first lady a blanket, necklace, which she put on (“It matches my outfit!”), a strawberry-shaped basket and a ribbon skirt. 

Biden then headed to Detroit Metro Airport for the Yeshiva Beth Yehudah's annual dinner held at the Renaissance Center in Detroit. She spoke alongside the "outstanding leadership" honoree Mary Barra, CEO and chair of General Motors Co. The event was closed to the press.

Biden was in Michigan last month when she spoke at Oakland Community College during a trip with U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and advocated for two years of free community college.

The community college proposal has been part of the Build Back Better plan of her husband, President Joe Biden, though lawmakers this week suggested it is likely to be cut as the package is pared in size and cost.

Michigan Republican Party communications director Gustavo Portela said in a statement that Biden's visit comes as the state's residents are being "squeezed on our middle class." 

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_