Established in 2016, SafeSpace is a youth-led organization, which empowers peer support and encourages self advocacy, changing the conversation about mental health. It is a place for teens to share their stories and solutions. Via local outreach efforts, and campus-based presentations, SafeSpace has now connected with 15,000 students in the Bay Area in one way or another. From its very inception, it was clear the need for an organization like this was great. And during this COVID pandemic, the awareness of mental health issues became even more pronounced at a national level. Liesl says the purpose of this organization was to: “give these kids a chance to make a difference and to...give them the mic.”
The Pike name is a familiar one on the Mayfield Senior School and Mayfield Junior School campuses. Before COVID, the Class of 2021 had their weekly “Community” assemblies in Pike Auditorium, named after Liesl’s grandparents, Thomas and Katherine Pike. Liesl explains that the philanthropy of her grandparents was specific to “their commitment and dedication to the things that they believed in.” She was very close to her grandparents, sometimes feeling more connected to them than her own parents. She recalls spending Sundays with them, when they would take the 10 grandchildren who lived locally to Mass at St. Philip the Apostle and treat everyone to breakfast at Van De Kamp’s afterwards. Liesl learned a lot from them both. She says she “fell in love with my grandmother’s God, a loving God, always there.” And moreover she, “learned just how important it was to serve and to give back.”
The graduating Mayfield seniors on the Zoom call wanted to know about life after Mayfield, and Liesl did have a slew of achievements to share—receiving her B.A. from Stanford, her MBA from Harvard, with some early professional successes in the internet boom, in addition to getting married and having children. But she doesn’t want to gloss over the struggles along the way either. “Good judgement comes from experience. Experience ultimately comes from bad judgement,” Liesl says, adding, “I have a lot of experience.”
Liesl talks about the year her parents moved homes while she was a teenager, leaving what she called her Mayfield “sweet spot.” When she entered a public high school in Orange County with 2,000 students, she felt adrift and encountered her own mental health challenges, including her first brush with depression. “I can totally relate to the angst of that 16-, 17-year-old group where you know enough about yourself, but you really just don't know enough about how to save yourself.” Her parents never directly broached this dark period with Liesl while she was living through it in the early 1980s—but Liesl is very aware this was part of the zeitgeist at the time. But, decades later, as a mother herself, she watched her own teen daughter Katherine struggle with massive anxiety, and Liesl wanted to be more communicative and proactive. Her daughter got the help she needed and eventually went on to study at Stanford as well. But several teens in the Bay Area, very near where Liesl and her family made their home, succumbed to their own mental health emergencies and ended their lives. Liesl felt compelled to do something, which was when she joined with a few others to establish SafeSpace.
Liesl praises the interventions of psychiatry and psychology, and all manner of counseling that is currently available to young people. But research suggests that when teens are encountering a mental health challenge, they tend to reach out to another teen first, and Liesl and her co-founders of SafeSpace to help fill that void. They wanted young people to be given resources to help themselves and each other as well. Liesl explains, “You know, all of these adults telling kids what they should do to feel better? I was just thinking, heck no, they need to have a voice in all of this too.”
Much of the insight and humility that Liesl brings to her work, and perspective on life, comes through her varied experiences of motherhood. Her second daughter, Madeline, was born “mysteriously and profoundly disabled,” and Liesl soon discovered she “would never speak or care for herself.” Liesl had so many hopes for Madeline, and could not help but think about the many things she would never be able to experience or accomplish. It took time for Liesl to “stop mourning the child I’d expected” and embrace the marvels of the daughter she had in front of her.
“[Madeline] is a great tactile person. She laughs a lot... she loves her dogs. She loves lights and music. She has no worries. She has no regrets,” says Liesl. Now it’s a lot easier for Liesl to see the divinity ever-present in her daughter. “She showed me don't wish for others what they don't want for themselves.” And in a particular way, Liesl says Madeline reminds her of Mayfield’s motto, “Actions Not Words,” as well. Madeline was never able to speak, but when Liesl observed what her daughter was actually doing and enjoying every day, she realized that Madeline had been “quietly self-advocating” for all that time.
Though it may not have been top of mind when SafeSpace was founded, the organization does seem to honor a part of Thomas Pike’s legacy as well—the legacy of destigmatizing mental health. A renowned industrialist, a special assistant to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and an esteemed philanthropist, Thomas Pike also participated in one of the first major public forums about mental health in the United States. He went on “60 Minutes” with Mike Wallace in the 1970’s to discuss his own struggles with depression, while the topic was still very taboo. And a half a century later, Liesl is further elevating the discussion, and letting even younger people take the lead, so they do not fall into the same mistakes of the past.
There was a period early in the pandemic, when Liesl and the SafeSpace staff worried about how the small organization would survive the challenges of COVID. But instead, the non-profit flourished. “The kids were more reliable at showing up to Zoom because there was a lower barrier to entry,” and turns out “they were more comfortable sharing online too,” says Liesl. The youth leaders created several videos called the “QuaranTEEN Diaries,” capturing the pandemic experience from a youth perspective. And Liesl was pleasantly surprised that those youth leaders continued to meet and plan, even though they couldn’t gather in person for a long while. “It has engendered this incredible... camaraderie and this commitment to SafeSpace.”
Liesl expressed a lot of faith in this generation, and having their mettle tested by a global pandemic in this critical period of their personal development, she suspects they may be acquiring the determination and resilience that usually comes much later in life. And after she spoke to those outgoing seniors over Zoom, she is also quite convinced that the spirit of Mayfield is alive and well too. Her message to Mayfield’s Class of 2021? “I'm so excited,” she says, thrilled that she will be able to join them for the in-person ceremony soon. “I always wanted to graduate from Mayfield, and now I get to graduate with you guys!”