Gibson Ek Sisters Worked to Make an Impact
Editor’s note: This article is part of an occasional series designed to highlight student voices and experiences from throughout the district.
In 2021, Gibson Ek High School seniors Cara and Caitlin Peterson opened a districtwide club that would come to make a positive impact on the Issaquah School District community, thanks in part to a school-based internship, supportive staff, an adult mentor and access to free mental health support.
The two sisters have accomplished a lot throughout their high school career, and for Principal Julia Bamba, Issaquah Interact is one achievement that stands out. “Starting the Interact club is incredible,” Bamba says. “The thing about their work to get this started is that it came from a genuine desire to help make an impact in their community. Many times, they can run an event without even making a big deal about it because they are focused on the behind the scenes work that is needed to make things happen.”
Cara and Caitlin founded Issaquah Interact with the help of their mentor, Cassie Howder, in their junior year. Their hope with the student-operated club was to welcome all students in grades 9-12, and focus on projects related to mental health and environmental sustainability.
“We wanted to not only build our own community, but also help the community around us,” says Cara.
Since its establishment, Issaquah Interact has grown from about eight members in 2021 to about 50 in 2023.
The growth of the club and overall student involvement makes Caitlin excited for Interact’s future. “It’s so great to see students taking initiative. … We have elected a board for next year that includes two new co-presidents that will keep the club running. ... Everyone has already done an incredible job stepping into their new roles. I think the club is in really good hands and I can't wait to see where it goes,” says Caitlin.
The club recently held a clothing swap event, which Caitlin says has been one of her favorite Interact projects so far. “When we started the club, we had a vision of it being completely student run and doing projects that our members were passionate about and that helped the community, and I think with this project, we've hit all three.”
Cara and Caitlin were less involved with the overall project this time around; upcoming presidents brainstormed the idea. “Cara and I took almost no lead on it. While I love leading projects and meetings, it is so nice to see other people stepping up to take responsibility and getting out of their comfort zones!"
Cara’s adviser, Oliver Jones, mentions that he can see the difference that they are making. “This club and its creation represent much of what is great about Gibson Ek. The students, with Cassie's support, started with really understanding the needs of the community.” This is the essence of design thinking, which is one of Gibson Ek’s frameworks for student projects.
“They've shown grit to keep it going, and thoughtfulness in improving it to keep it alive for next year,” Jones says. “Cara made it a goal to ensure the club's continued success after her departure, and I think she's done well with this, too.”
Caitlin says that they've been wanting to host an event like this since starting the club. "I am very stoked about it. It (offered) a chance for our ‘Interactors,’ their families and Rotary members to socialize, learn about the club and celebrate our achievements,” Caitlin says.
Continuing the conversation of spreading awareness about mental health and resources for students, Caitlin and Cara mention therapy as a possible resource that can be useful, whether or not a student has a good support system outside of school.
“Having therapists in schools is very helpful,” says Cara, who has made use of the service in the past. “Some students may not have the resources to afford one [outside of school]."
She says that Gibson Ek's school-based mental health counselor is excellent.
“Everyone struggles with something... [and] school therapy is a good gateway to getting help [because] they can point you to more resources if needed,” says Caitlin.
The Issaquah School District is partnered with Swedish Medical Center in Issaquah and provides buildings in the district with school-based mental health counselors that offer students services that focus on mental health.
Gibson Ek students also receive aid from their school adviser, who supports students with a variety of concerns that go beyond academics, whether it be giving advice or providing a listening ear.
Caitlin and Cara say they are grateful for the support that their individual advisers have provided; Caitlin's adviser is Lena Tsaoussis, and Cara's adviser is Jones.
“Lena is so awesome... I was really shy, but began to open up because of her,” says Caitlin. As a soon-to-be first-generation college student, Caitlin credits Tsaoussis for providing insight into the application process. “Lena was also a first-generation college student and helped a lot... I’m her number one supporter, and I’m pretty sure she’s mine too.”
Tsaoussis is in fact a big supporter of Caitlin, saying that she feels lucky to have Caitlin in her advisory for all four years of her high school career.
“Over that time, I've gotten to know her as someone who is passionate about community, the environment, and also Taylor Swift,” Tsaoussis says about Caitlin. “[She] truly cares about people and will go out of her way to make people feel welcome and included – whether that person is a student new to the school, a visitor or even her adviser who was sad about having to stare at 20 blank screens on Zoom.”
Tsaoussis also raves about Caitlin’s creative writing skills. “I have also been mentoring her with her creative writing... she is a very talented poet! I love talking about writing with her and I'm excited to see if she continues the practice when she goes to college.”
She describes Caitlin as a once-shy freshman who looked like she was about to pass out from fright at her first public speaking event to a student who now helps lead an entire club, participates in multiple extracurricular leadership opportunities, and is someone who underclassmen see as a role model.
“I see everything that she has accomplished and everything that she has overcome, and I am incredibly proud of her,” Tsaoussis says.
Like her sister, Cara also says she's grateful to have an incredibly supportive adviser in Jones. “He believes in me a little too much,” Cara says, in a teasing tone. “He’s learning to be hard on me.”
Jones says he believes in the innate ability of not just Cara, but all young people. “Cara has great potential, and just needs belief. And so, I've tried to show her that. She's a natural in so many areas, and so I've seen it as my job to shine light on those strengths of hers so that she'll see them, too.”
Jones reflects on the impact that Cara has had on his role as an adviser. “Being Cara’s adviser has taught me a lot about how to best support students. She's always ready for input and willing to take feedback and ideas, which I really appreciate,” he says.
The continued support throughout the years seems to be paying off – Jones says he sees how much Cara has grown.
“Cara believes in herself more now than ever. She struggles with this at times, but I know she's making progress. The more she sees herself succeed, the more her confidence grows. This is evidenced by the Interact Club, which has been tremendous for her. Our community is better off because she, her sister, and Cassie created this club. What a legacy she's leaving!” Jones says. “Cara’s eternal kindness and compassion to others will be missed!”
As the doors begin to close on Cara and Caitlin's high school career, and while our community will surely miss the dynamic duo who made a positive impact here, the duo say they are looking forward to their future. After graduation, Caitlin plans to pursue a degree in environmental studies at Western Washington University, while Cara will attend Eastern Washington University (EWU). Cara is interested in career paths surrounding psychology and mental health, and also hopes to explore her passions for acting and filmmaking.
Issaquah Interact will host its first chartering event in June, and will take a break from meeting once summer arrives. In the meantime, you can learn more about the club and stay up to date with all things related to Issaquah Interact by visiting their Instagram page (@issaquahinteract).
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