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Strengthening connections, advocating for students and mental well-being

LaChelle Allen, School Counseling program student and a member of the Helping Heels program's first cohort, prioritizes student well-being by advocating for equity, social justice, and catering to the diverse needs of all students.

Fueled by her commitment to foster student well-being, LaChelle Allen has a desire for all students to succeed, both in the classroom and beyond. 

Born and raised in Caswell County, located just north of Orange County where Chapel Hill is located, Allen developed a deep connection to serve rural communities — a connection that has shaped her educational and professional journey. 

“Growing up in a rural community, I believed that pursuing a career as a school counselor would allow me to give back effectively,” Allen said. “The motivation behind what I do was to use my experiences to benefit others in rural communities.” 

In May 2023, Allen enrolled in the UNC School of Education’s Master’s in Education in School Counseling program as part of the first cohort of Helping Heels — Expanding Access to Care and Improving Opportunities for Rural Schools in the Tar Heel State — program. 

With faculty member Dana Griffin, Ph.D., serving as the principal investigator, the UNC School of Education was awarded a $2.27 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to pursue the 5-year Helping Heels program which places school counselors-in-training in rural high-needs elementary and middle schools in Person and Granville Counties and motivates its graduates to seek employment in those schools or similar ones.

The program also works to leverage counselors’ expertise to bolster students’ academic success and support their development by addressing academic struggles, challenges students face that can obstruct learning, and, in particular, students’ mental health needs. To Allen, Helping Heels serves as a vessel to understand student experiences through continuous mental health and well-being advocacy at a level students can resonate with.  

“I have gained an appreciation for the role school counselors play and the value they provide students,” said Allen, who worked as a teacher and social worker before pursuing a career in school counseling. “Counselors serve as advocates for students, giving a voice to their needs and ensuring access to resources, especially mental health services.”  

Through Helping Heels, Allen sees an opportunity to fulfill her passion for closing equity gaps and expanding student access to essential resources, setting her on the path to drive change as a school counselor and uplift schools and the communities in which schools are located. 

“I see myself as a valuable resource,” Allen said. “The importance of mental health is at the forefront, and being in schools enables me to address and break stigmas surrounding mental health.” 

Advocacy in action  

After graduating from Winston Salem State University in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in gerontology, Allen began working in medical services but soon discovered a passion for working with young learners.  

Allen then spent nearly two years teaching middle school students in her native Caswell County and later served as an elementary teacher at North Elementary School in adjacent Person County. To Allen, these teaching experiences enriched her understanding of the educational landscape and solidified her commitment to supporting students.  

“As a teacher, I had to understand my students beyond academics, getting to know them socially and emotionally as well,” Allen said. “I needed insight into their home lives and backgrounds to teach them effectively and make the content relatable. Building relationships is fundamental to teaching, and students want to know you care and have their best interests in mind.” 

In addition to teaching, Allen also worked in social work, supporting children in foster care. Witnessing the varying experiences from youth during her time as a social worker, she discovered an affinity for learning more social-emotional aspects of nurturing their well-being as they continue their education, inspiring her to pursue a master’s degree in elementary education and teaching from North Carolina State University.  

After graduating from NC State in May 2023, Allen wanted to advance her commitment to her values as an educator and work in social services, leading her to join the School’s School Counseling program in May 2023 and bringing a distinct blend of teaching and social work experiences with a goal to foster equity and whole-child support in schools. 

“Having worked in foster care, I understood challenges some students faced being raised by relatives or in the system,” Allen said. “This enabled me to better support my students. Making connections beyond the classroom gave me a more holistic view of each student that informed my teaching methods and helped me see them as more than just learners.” 

The School’s School Counseling program is an intensive, 14-month program in which students participate in a tightly knit cohort experience and a yearlong internship that provides deep preparation for success as a school counselor.  

Recognizing the impact of a school counselor, Allen strives to create an environment where students feel heard, valued, and empowered. 

“I’m dedicated to being open and honest with students, making an effort to understand and connect with them on their level,” Allen said. “Parents trust us with their children, and as students reveal their experiences, our role becomes understanding their needs and finding effective ways to support them.” 

Committing to student support and equity 

Through her studies within the School Counseling program and Helping Heels to bring mental health resources to rural communities, Allen has gained first-hand exposure to systemic gaps school counselors strive to fill each day in her Granville County middle school.  

Allen hopes to leverage this knowledge to inform effective policy changes and resource allocation to better serve rural students. 

“My experience at UNC has broadened my understanding to focus on supporting students socially and emotionally,” Allen said. “In this program, I’ve gained so much knowledge about advocacy, delved into issues of equity and equality, and developed a commitment to social justice.” 

While her journey into school counseling was influenced by a desire to give back to rural communities similar to where she grew up, Allen’s school counseling journey has been bolstered by Helping Heels, enabling her to work in those communities and showcase the impact of equitable access to counseling and mental-health resources.  

“Helping Heels has been instrumental in shaping my perspective on the role of a school counselor,” Allen said. “It shows the importance of advocating for the well-being and needs of all students, especially the most vulnerable ones.” 

As a school counselor, her aims extend beyond meeting individual student needs; Allen strives to advance the broader dialogue destigmatizing mental health issues and normalizing support-seeking by promoting cultures of compassion and self-care.  

“I recognize the impact school counselors have, not only guiding individual students, but driving change,” Allen said. “Continuing to advocate across every level is important.”   

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