“Mental health is a problem and I hate that it’s so stigmatized,” Leaffer said. “During my sophomore year, the pandemic hit, which made things worse all across the country. It really tore my heart apart, because, even before, a lot of kids didn’t feel like they could share their problems.”
Leaffer is as fascinated with the human brain and behavior as she is with horses. When not reading or studying for Mr. Walsweer’s psychology classes or exploring the subject on her own time, she spends some 25 hours a week riding and training as a show jumper. To raise money for mental health projects at Regis Jesuit and elsewhere, she works at a barn, mucking stalls and feeding and grooming horses, including two of her own. She travels to events around the country and hopes to compete in college and one day, make it to the Fédération Équestre Internationale Jumping World Cup.
Leaffer grew up in an interfaith home. Her father is Jewish and her mother Catholic, whom she said, “always trusted me to believe in whatever I chose.” She was attracted to Regis Jesuit for its Catholic values and what she calls the “demeanor” of the school. “I love religion and history, so the curriculum looked perfect.” She had heard that Jesuit education encompassed the whole person, so she believed she wouldn’t have to sacrifice her riding as long as she got her schoolwork done. She also hoped she could continue to advocate for more transparency around mental health.
Now in her junior year, Leaffer is working closely with Dana Bauer, Assistant Principal of Student Support, to bring more student voices into the conversation about mental health issues. The timing has been perfect, because, under Bauer, whose administrative role is new this school year, the school has begun integrating all health and counseling services across campus to provide a more holistic approach. Bauer had been a school counselor at Regis Jesuit for many years.
Bauer now oversees 20 people in five departments, including Learning Services, School Counseling and College Counseling. “Students cannot be fully successful in academics if their mental health is not the number one priority,” she said. “We are a unique environment, where cura personalis
—the care and concern of the whole person—permeates everything we do. Katherine has helped us see how important it is to hear from the students exactly what it is they need and how they want to proceed at Regis Jesuit.”
Together, Bauer and Leaffer have organized a student advisory committee, and they are creating an open forum for students to share their stories and be heard by the administration. At the first meeting, students spoke openly about what services they need, what the school is doing well and what blind spots exist. After reviewing a list of the many services and programs the school could add, Leaffer’s family—and Katherine herself—provided seed funding to ensure that Regis Jesuit’s one part-time school therapist could expand her hours to full-time. The school also is hiring a second full-time therapist, and recently was awarded a grant by the University of Colorado to implement Botvin LifeSkills Training
for incoming high school students to help them build skills to navigate the challenges they face.
Additional fundraising efforts will make more financial and community supports available for students and integrate more student-led programming into the school day. Programs such as individual counseling, therapy options and counseling groups will continue, but more resources will be added as additional student needs are identified.
“Everyone’s heart is in this,” said Bauer, who now has a long list of initiatives that will help the Raider community. “Gaining support shouldn’t be a hard sell. But we can’t afford to wait. Thanks to Katherine, we’ve got a lot of students who are as passionate as she is.”