Michelle McGrath: The Youth Advocate

By Candice Wagener | Photography by Hillary Schave

Service has always been a priority for Michelle McGrath, an active member of the Rotary Club since 2007. “Community and connecting everybody, it’s a passion,” says McGrath. “It doesn’t feel like work — it’s enjoyable, especially when you know you’re impacting and making a difference.”

With 27 years of experience in education working with youth, she was quick to respond when the village received a drug-free community grant and needed someone to take the lead.

As project coordinator of the Waunakee Community Cares Coalition (WCCC), organized to ensure a healthy, resilient Waunakee through the prevention of substance misuse and encouraging positive mental health, McGrath plans, implements and evaluates data-driven community strategies, using the results of the Dane County Youth Assessment as a guide.

The numbers are stark and Waunakee is no exception. “Substances are flooding our communities that are a real danger to our youth,” says McGrath. “Police have found pills laced with fentanyl in our community. Alcohol use for our youth also continues to rise.”

Mental wellbeing factors in as well. “Based on our current data, 79% of our young women are facing mental health challenges including anxiety, depression, [and] suicide ideation. Sixty percent of our young men. These numbers increase for our populations facing disparities,” says McGrath. “My heart breaks just thinking how many this affects.”

McGrath’s big goal for 2023 is to strengthen connections, growing WCCC another 50% by bringing community partners together, including city government and the police department, to discuss challenges and brainstorm actionable solutions. Since her data shows 95% of students believe change and impact can

happen working together, including a diverse group of students in the decision-making is a big goal, too.

“It’s imperative that we have young people at the table saying here’s how we feel, here are the solutions and let’s work together on them,” says McGrath. “Connecting kids to our schools and the work ahead is a necessary step for success.”

McGrath is also co-founder of ZENith, a business running retreats, workshops and consulting to help females find clarity, courage and connection to live their best lives. She’s excited to bring back full retreats this year, allowing women
to dive deeper into what’s next for them, whether they’re contemplating switching jobs, going back to the workforce or new entrepreneurship. ZENith also launched a podcast called the Zen Den, featuring established entrepreneurs sharing their journey and lessons learned.

McGrath’s work with ZENith will fulfill a personal goal for 2023 as well. “I want to share my stories, my journey, my wisdom with other young people so they might either learn something or at least feel they have someone on the journey walking beside them to make it feel a little less lonely.”

What excites you about working with a younger generation of women?

“ This new generation of young women are really great at risk-taking. Things that I never would have thought to do, whether it comes to travel or the Peace Corps … They want to go make a difference, an impact, and they’ve seen other [women] do it now, so they know they can.”

Read more about the 2023 Women to Watch here.

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