AHA!’s Teens Are Fulfilled Adults-in-Waiting

By Giving List Staff   |   November 17, 2023
AHA!'s third annual Digital Cleanse wellness retreat was held in June 2023. Twenty-six teens spent five device-free days connecting with self, peers, and nature. Highlights included hiking, art and writing activities, improv, and kayaking with otters.

A teenager is much more than a preincarnate adult. The average teen’s roiling hormones and fraught search for self are cultural tropes, and often charming topics of conversation. But the American teenager – perhaps now more than ever before – can be a vessel of deep insecurity and well-camouflaged pain; a boat adrift and in desperate search of landfall. AHA! (the acronym stands for Attitude. Harmony. Achievement.) has, for 24 years, made it their mission to advance teens’ social-emotional learning (SEL) and sense of genuine, earned positivity.

Following the horrific school shooting at Columbine in April 1999, AHA!’s founders set their sights on a new teen paradigm. Melissa Lowenstein, AHA!’s Director of Training, explains, “Two therapists, Jennifer Freed and Rendy Freedman, were working together at the Family Therapy Institute here in Santa Barbara, and became truly galvanized in the wake of that shooting, asking themselves ‘How do we create a world where this doesn’t happen?’” Rendy Freedman founded the Waldorf school here in Santa Barbara, and Jennifer Freed had been working with teens as a therapist for years. “They combined ideas about how to lead groups for teens that would create a sense of connection and belonging, gatherings that would allow space for teens being themselves without judgment,” Lowenstein says.

Starting out as a small summer program and offshoot of the Family Therapy Institute, AHA! became a standalone 501(c)(3) in 2006. The scale of the issue shouldn’t be underestimated. “One thing that is really important for people to know,” Lowenstein says, “is that there’s a mental health crisis for kids right now. A lot of it seems connected to the advent of the parallel digital life that’s increasingly taking over their real lives. Human beings in need of in-person connecting and belonging – that’s who these teens really are.”

AHA! programs serve middle school, junior high, and high school students, as well as parents, guardians, adults at home, educators, and the broader community. Working in cycles of seven to 10 weeks and meeting once a week, AHA! will send a team of facilitators into schools, the ideal ratio being one facilitator for every seven or eight kids. After-school and summer programs follow a similar model with greater depth, focus, and learning in a more intimate environment. The programs work with participatory, experiential tools to draw the teens out and encourage person-to-person, real-world interfacing with other teens. 

“One of my favorite days that we do is about emotional flooding,” Lowenstein says. “Kids learn what happens in the brain and body when they’re overwhelmed with a big emotion. Understanding what goes on physiologically really helps them notice when it’s happening, allowing them to make a choice to calm themselves down or do some self-care before they act.”

Lowenstein relates a story of one young person’s emergence from the chrysalis. “One boy came to us and was just silent. He showed up every week, on time, and listened to others beautifully, but wouldn’t share at all. One year we started to recruit for Sing It Out (a unique 14-week self-actualization journey culminating in a solo performance song). Among the first words we ever heard him say was, ‘I want to do that.’ When the day arrived, he sang a song wearing a gold sequined jacket, and he was amazing. He went from not talking at all to completely unfurling and unfolding into this person who would take the stage in front of several hundred people. That’s the kind of thing that can happen.” 

AHA! is providing young people the tools to find life, love, connections, and excellence on their own terms.


Attitude, Harmony, Achievement

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Senior Director of Development  Molly Green


AHA! equips teenagers, educators, and parents with social and emotional intelligence to dismantle apathy, prevent despair, and interrupt hate-based behavior.

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It’s never been harder to be a teenager. Social isolation, skyrocketing gun violence, social media divisiveness, bullying and discrimination, and persistent anxiety about an uncertain world have led to unprecedented levels of mental health issues in youth. For me – as a donor, volunteer, and now board member of AHA! – I know we must show up for our teenagers now more than ever, and this program is the surest way I know to make a profound difference. AHA! provides lifetime tools for social and emotional well-being, enabling teens to better care for themselves, each other, and their communities.
Justine Roddick
AHA! Board Member

Give Teens the Tools to Tackle Life

Our in-school programs have served some 55,000 students since our founding, and we receive just 14% from districts toward the cost of services. We need help reaching our goal of raising 33% of our budget – half a million dollars – to continue to provide social-emotional learning programming, mentorship, and support to the SBUSD and CUSD.

Key Supporters

Lisa and Bryan Babcock
Jennifer and Peter Buffett
Deckers Brands
Daun and Daniel Dees
Lisa Foley
Erica Gervais
Kerrilee and Martin Gore
Nancy Grinstein and Neal Rabin
Karen and Bayard Hollins
Danialle and Peter Karmanos
Jill Martin
Nora McNeely Hurley
and Michael Hurley
NoVo Foundation
Natalie Orfalea and Lou Buglioli
Marla McNally Phillips and Lee Phillips
Stacy and Ron Pulice
The Rodel Foundations
Justine Roddick and Tina Schlieske
Rand Rosenberg and Teran Davis
Leanne Schlinger
Regina Scully
Susan and Bobby Shand
The Smidt Family
Kind World Foundation