Sarah Griebler did not just walk to school with one of her younger sisters, Claire, while growing up in Park Ridge. Sarah had to introduce a game — sometimes silly, sometimes pointless — during the trip.
“I’d say to Claire, ‘Hey, think we can get to school one minute faster today than we did yesterday?’ ” recalls Griebler, whose other sister is Kate. “I wanted to have fun on the way to school.
“I wanted to turn a walk into an adventure.”
Sarah Griebler, 30, sits next to me at Café Buongiorno in Winnetka, her new hometown and the village in which she works. She has already infected me with her genuine exuberance. Should I get prepared for some kind of adventure during our breakfast?
I look for a seatbelt.
I find a napkin on my lap instead.
The highly energetic Director of Program Strategy and Development at Erika’s Lighthouse — a not-for-profit organization dedicated to educating and raising awareness about adolescent depression, encouraging good mental health and breaking down the stigma surrounding mental health issues — orders hot water with a slice of lemon and French toast with strawberries and blueberries on top.
I find out later she sang the lyrics of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” (from the play Oklahoma!) to herself on her way to the restaurant. I find out later she watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on TV, as a 4-year-old during lunchtime.
One of Griebler’s favorite movies?
Inside Out, an animated film about an 11-year-old girl named Riley, whose emotions attempt to guide her through a difficult, life-changing event. Riley’s emotions, including Joy, Fear and Sadness, surface as characters with verbal skills.
“Great movie,” says Griebler, a Maine South High School graduate who majored in psychology and minored in music at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. “It reminds us that our emotions, all of our emotions, are gifts. You might ask, ‘What’s so good about fear?’ Fear keeps us safe. Sadness leads to opportunities for people in your life to show you love and help you find joy again.”
Griebler informs me Erika’s Lighthouse was founded in 2004 by Tom and Ginny Neuckranz after their 14-year-old daughter, Erika, died by suicide when struggling with depression. Their mission is to educate middle school and high school communities about depression, to encourage young people to get support when they need it and to reduce the stigma associated with depression.
In 2016, 24 states taught Erika’s Lighthouse middle school and high school curricula; 16 Chicago area high schools offered Erika’s Lighthouse Teen Clubs; and the total number of teens educated by Erika’s Lighthouse reached nearly 77,000.
“We work primarily with health teachers in schools, ideal settings from people to have meaningful conversations about mental health,” Griebler says. “Our most effective approach is from a storytelling perspective — videos of teens discussing serious topics are personable and relatable and engaging. Suicide is a topic many want to push away; we want to get closer to it, talk about it. We receive some wonderful feedback after we show videos to students in classroom.
“Kids,” she adds, “are so eager to help us with our projects; some recommended a better choice of music to use for a segment in one of our videos.”
A teen in a video talked openly about what he was going through as a child of divorced parents. It was exactly what at least one viewer in the audience needed to see and hear.
“That student said to me, ‘Wow, it was comforting for me to listen to that and know I am not alone,’ ” recounts Griebler, who, in 2014, joined the staff at Erika’s Lighthouse and spent three years facilitating programs at local high schools. “Young people need tools to help them find ways to feel empowered, and what I find exciting about Erika’s Lighthouse is the collaborative work we’re doing as a staff to provide effective tools and to see to it that they’re accessible.
“A question we like to ask is, ‘What is our piece of the puzzle in this?’”
The Polish word for puzzle is zagadka. Griebler knew that well before I did. In 2009, to be exact. That was her first of three years as a teacher in Cieszyn, Poland. She taught English conversation lessons to classes of 12-40 students, grades 7-12. She also taught preschool, kindergarten and elementary after-school English enrichment courses in Cesky Tesin, Czech Republic, from 2009-11.
“I fell in love with that part of Europe in between my fifth and sixth grades,” says Griebler. “I went to Prague with my best friend’s family for a vacation, and guess how I paid for the trip? I sold my Beanie Babies collection, about 20-25 of them. I received close to $2,000 dollars for them. Did not mind parting with them at all.”
A high achiever in the classroom and a drum major and pit-orchestra clarinetist in high school, Griebler arrived at Lawrence University in the fall of 2005 and hit it off immediately with her roommate. Both had seen Wicked, the musical. Both had loved it.
“What was so great about college was connecting with intellectually curious people,” says Griebler, who worked at Northwestern University as a program assistant in the Center for Talent Development, School of Education and Social Policy from 2011-13. “I tutored international students and got to work with an education professor on projects, one involving the dynamics of classroom discussion. For a semester in London, I interned at a little theatre [Theatre503].
“Broadway tunes … I love Broadway tunes. Give me quirky, experimental theater, and I’d be happy. My entire family is into musicals, into plays. The Sound of Music — that’s my favorite musical.”
Griebler takes a bite of her French toast.
I detect a twinkle in her eye.
It tells me her mind is alive with the sound of a song from The Sound of Music.
Erika’s Lighthouse is located at 897-½ Green Bay Road in Winnetka. For more information on the not-for-profit organization, please visit erikaslighthouse.org.