A Wellness Room

What it is and how to start one

By By Kristen Burkholder

A wellness room is a peaceful space designed to promote relaxation and mindfulness, offering a quiet retreat where individuals can decompress from the stresses of daily life. A wellness room can be opened almost anywhere—a corporate complex, a behavioral science wing of a hospital, a room in a synagogue—even a high school, which is where I opened mine. I chose a high school because kids are stressed, bored, confused, struggling, and awesome. Plus, they are also thinking about what they want to do with the rest of their lives (something I share with them) while receiving a massage. (Who knows? One or more students might consider becoming a bodyworker!) Also, most of the staff are under the crust of burnout and overwhelm, love teenagers as much as I do.
The wellness room I helped create and co-manage is a room for students and staff. There, they receive a variety of bodywork from licensed complementary health-care professionals, and the massages are free of charge. Initially, you may have to work the channels, dodge a little opposition, and be ignored for a while. But don’t give up. With a little patience, you will create an oasis in a fraught place.
A wellness room can also be financially rewarding. You might finagle a stipend, receive a grant, or ask for donations. I choose to volunteer. This makes it easy for people to say yes to me and stimulates my latent altruism.

The Nuts and Bolts

If you find the idea of opening a wellness room appealing, you’ll want to consider the following suggestions.

Get some help

Find a colleague or other complementary practitioner who wants to open and operate the wellness room with you. When my friend, colleague, and chiropractor of over 10 years, Dr. Jane, asked me, “Do you want to start a wellness room at the high school?” I answered, “Amen, sister! When?” Working with another professional provides more validity to your proposals and presentations.

Choose a location

Find a place you think could use a wellness room. High schools are a good fit (although I’m sure elementary schools and middle schools could work too). Teenagers usually have real injuries to deal with (aches and pains) already at their tender age.
Don’t be intimidated by the demographics of your high school. Where I live is coastal/rural, with kids in lounge pants tucked into their snow boots—and plenty of personalities and backgrounds—although the overall vibe is small town. The kids are kind of shy and suspicious of boasters and salespeople.

Make your pitch

Start at the top and work your way down. Most of the kids don’t know they need you yet, so go after the adults. The way we did it went more or less like this:
• Send a letter to the superintendent and principal (one-pager! Do not be a time-waster) stating your intentions. For example: “Hi, I’m a licensed professional massage therapist and my colleague and I have been practicing for years. We’d like to start a wellness room in your school building, where licensed professionals offer their services free of charge to students and staff. We see this as an educational experience . . .” And so on.
• Ask for a moment in the teacher meeting. It is helpful if you are friends with a few of the teachers. (Jane had these relationships, not me, so I leaned on her through this phase.) Again, keep it short and to the point: This is us. This is what we do and how long we’ve been doing it. This is our vision for the room. Please feel free to contact us with questions or concerns.
• Make a presentation to the school board. This is the same presentation you give to the teachers, but you will probably get the most skeptical feedback here. Be on board with their safety concerns. Think through your presentation, and have a plan in place keeping the room professional.
Finally, pitch your idea to the students. Once you’ve been approved by the board and staff, you’ll be ready to pitch your wares to each class. (Oh yes, you will be nervous. Don’t give up now!) Tell them who you are—loud and clear and quick. If you’re going to get inappropriate questions, now is the time that will happen. Preplan your responses. Your presentation will be over in 10 minutes. Then, you can shake it off and get to the task of setting up shop.

Find a room

You’ll need a dedicated space to keep your stuff and create a relaxing feel. By some incredible magic, we got a windowless, incredibly hot room a little bit bigger than a bathroom, but we set up good lighting, a fan, the right number of tables, nice music, and appropriate décor. This room has been ours since 2012. Our room could have been near the gymnasium with the screaming of basketball players. Or it could have been in a far-flung corner where most students never go, which would have made the room kind of creepy and weird. We got lucky.
You might get lucky too. Whatever room you get, make sure it has a lockable door that only you and your fellow volunteers can access.

Promote your wellness room

The same way you promote anything, promote your wellness room. Use a website, Facebook, emails, texts, etc. We have homespun, but effective, little signs we put out in the hall to remind everyone we are there that day. I email a reminder to the assistant principal for morning announcements the week prior. Our door also has a calendar with our schedule written on it in dry-erase marker.
One of our greatest cheerleaders is the school nurse, who sees me coming and says joyfully, “It’s YOU! I’ll put out a note to the teachers!” and helps us get permission slips for students filled out by calling students’ parents or guardians and getting verbal permission over the phone.

Build rapport

The hardest part is waiting, which any of us who have our own businesses know too well. There you sit, wanting to be a blessing, and you’re being ignored. Does this mean you go home early? No, it does not. You hang out (either in the room or in the hall) and smile—you build rapport.
What does it take to establish rapport? What would create the trust you crave that gets staff and students on your table and into your eager, happy hands? If your room is currently empty, maybe just say hi to the teacher next door, or go into the office under the guise of getting a copy of the semester schedule and chat up the administrative assistant. (Remember, she’s busy. Make it a brief chat). Or, amble to the reception desk to see if Angela wouldn’t mind 10 minutes of neck and shoulder massage. You will learn amazing things about the ergonomics of her desk, the details of her son’s near-miss on Route 95 this past weekend, and the importance of not staring at her computer screen because, you know, boundaries.

The MindSet

Have you worked a wellness or health fair? The work you do in a public environment, where time is limited and folks are just getting a taste of your work, is markedly different from the in-depth time you spend with your paying clients. That health fair mentality is a good way to frame your approach, as you begin to talk to people about your wellness room, and when you open your doors. Here are some tips:
• Hold your personal and professional boundaries firmly. There are many scenarios in which being overly friendly or concerned could be tragically misconstrued.
• Have protocols in place. The door to the room is never completely shut. A teenager is never to be alone in the room with an adult. (One of the many reasons I prize my co-volunteer Derek. We have each other’s back—sometimes literally, depending on how crowded the room gets.) Permission slips to participate must be reviewed and signed by a parent or guardian and returned for anyone under 18. Plus, you’ll need to have them on file. “My parents would think it’s fine” is not your go-ahead. Be strict about paperwork.
• Be flexible. When you run a wellness room in a school, you are on that school’s schedule. (Have you looked at a school schedule lately? It’s insane. Things are timed out to the odd minute, to the :02 and the :12 and the :38.) You’re not helping if a student or staff member tells you they only have 10 minutes, and you keep them there for 15. The stress of being late is counterproductive when receiving a massage.
• Be on board. Most schools require a background check for anybody who steps into the school to work. Some schools require a background check and fingerprinting too. If those are the rules, play ball. Also, remember that other school services trump yours. If a student has a mental health issue, or the work they receive uncovers heavy emotional stuff, walk them to the guidance office.
• If a student is sick, alert the school nurse. “What’s going on for you today?” is all you need to ask when a student or staff member shows up. We are not there to counsel, fix, or transform anyone. It may happen, but we should not pursue it.
• Don’t solicit for business. Even though, hopefully, you will have repeat participants (or as we lovingly refer to them, “frequent fliers”) in the wellness room, you can’t expect it. If clients want to know more about your work, have business cards handy, but “To be really helpful, I could see you in my office” is not an OK thing to say in this context.

The Work

My colleague Derek and I set up shop and work for 2.5 hours twice a month. I bring snacks, water, and tea to keep our blood sugar up, because we often get going and hardly have a moment to eat or use the bathroom. Students and staff sit next to one another on folding chairs, waiting their turn in our small, softly lit room. Students are only allowed to participate during study hall or lunch hour (sanctioned free time, not during class).
We aim to offer 15-minute massage on tables, since that seems to be what we have in abundance (massage chairs would have been great, but I think most of the staff and students like lying down. I mean, who wouldn’t like to lie down in the middle of their day?). Sometimes we can do up to 25 minutes if no one is waiting, but often those sessions get swiftly drawn to a close after 10 minutes because three students come in at once with both of us working already.
Our massage is a standard, over-the-clothes massage. The only thing we ask them to remove is their shoes and glasses. Some, we request that they leave their shoes on (it’s easier to clean up the dirt than be nearly overcome by the pungency of their socks). Try to not let this be a cookie-cutter experience. It’s good to check in, especially with those you see every time you’re there, to help them define the kind and depth of pressure you use.
It is understood that your massage therapist heart is more than enough in the wellness room. In his seminal, must-read work, Putting the Soul Back in the Body, David Lauterstein writes, “Notice how the basic movements of massage are all derived from everyday gestures of affection. If we will let their spontaneity affect even our deeper work, our clients will feel fantastic.”1 You may be the only reassuring, unconditionally affirmative and nurturing human contact this person receives all day, or all week. Revel in the delight of your service.

An Honor and a Privilege

What I’ve laid out is the most basic idea for how to create a wellness room. There are many details I left out, and I certainly didn’t create this idea. We modeled ours on a neighboring high school’s wellness room started in 2001. Theirs was in response to suicides at their school and 9/11. Ours was because we wanted to help in whatever way we could to alleviate distress with something as limited, and also as powerful, as our touch.
Poverty, food insecurity, and lack of health insurance stalk Mainers. A lot of families are just trying to keep food in the house. I know my place in their priorities, and it is my honor and privilege to be where they can receive my work with zero cost or effort. It makes every whiff of floor varnish, fried food, and freshmen drenched in Axe body spray worthwhile.

Lessons from Earl: Focus on the Here and Now

Earl has graduated high school now, and I will probably never see him again. This must be what teachers go through all the time—letting their “kids” go—and I’m still learning how to do it in my high school wellness room.
I live and work in a small rural coastal town in Maine, the kind of place people who live here year-round endure (and appreciate) and tourists invade when it’s warm. The stillness, darkness, and bugs are unnerving to those unaccustomed. (Don’t get me wrong, Mainers don’t have bug-enduring superpowers necessarily. It’s just one of many onslaughts we’re prepared to cope with, much like Floridians resigning themselves to snakes.)
Earl tromped into our wellness room when he was a freshman, stiff as car parts and contained as a glove box. He worked for his dad over 50 hours a week in the summer, with his arms up over his head (welding machines on lifts—autos, tractors, boats, trucks, anything that needed the intelligence and strength that only his family business can offer). His hands were clean but stained with grease and oil and his forearms felt like they had steel cables running through them.
I initially mistook Earl’s silence as sulking, but then realized it wasn’t that at all. He was just tired from labor, which was different from his peers, who were just busy-busy-busy. I would ask Earl my questions: “What can I do for you today?” “Where is it bothering you?”
“Everything,” he would say. “Everywhere.”
Earl was on the wrestling team too, and during the season, his musculature would go from barely pliable to armored. I admired him for working so hard, and it also made my heart hurt to feel how locked up he was. What difference could I make in my 15-minute time slot?
A few times I tried the more-is-more approach (you know the one . . . whomp, whomp, whomp with the hands! Just a bit more of a squeeze with the squeeze. “That’s too much,” he’d murmur, eyes closed, drifting. In a setting where it’s hard to elicit feedback (even though it’s terribly important), I always knew where I stood with Earl, and after a while I knew what
to do.
One of the joys of working with teenagers is when they start with you as freshmen and carry through to their senior year. If for no other reason, it’s vastly amusing to see how much they change from the ages of 14–18. Really nothing changed about Earl. He always had on the same kind of Carhartts, the lace-up work boots that took forever for him to unlace and remove (and then reverse the process before he left), the same neutral T-shirts and pretty much the same hair, come to think of it—except he grew, practically a foot by the time he left this spring.
This past year, Earl got a concussion at a wrestling meet that truncated his season, and I was concerned. I slathered him in an over-the-counter icy/hot rub one week, hoping to further reduce his pain and soreness (besides the concentrated massage I did all through his upper half). “You can’t use that this week,” he told me. “Last week I took a shower later and it went down my backside down my crack.” Withholding a guffaw, after working on him, I used a different OTC rub—this one full of arnica and less “zesty,” shall we say.
“That smells like butt,” he informed me as I applied it with my customary earnestness and zeal. I apologized, looked for a moist towelette to remove it from his skin, and got a wicked case of the giggles when I saw my co-volunteer Derek was also trying not to laugh.
I got to see Earl one last time before 2019 graduation, and when he left, I pretty much said, “Toodle-oo ! Have a great life!” There are some kids you work with who cling to you in their departure, who meet you in a moment where you both briefly acknowledge what the past few years have been. If I made a difference for Earl, it was unspoken. For sure, I know I gave him a brief nap for four years, twice a month (weather permitting). And, now he knows he likes massage. Which is good information for anyone, especially a 19-year-old welder.
In a recent edition of Massage & Bodywork magazine the editors asked the question: “Only 18 percent of the US population receives a massage each year. How do we increase that percentage?” Maybe we’re not massaging more people because we’re not meeting them where they are physically, geographically, and financially.
I ask a lot of my fellow Americans to schedule a session, show up at my office, lie down on my table for 60-plus minutes, and risk getting a service. Then, I ask them to shell out money and lost time in the midst of their insane day—all in the name of practicing “self-care.”
We like to champion our industry as non-luxury—as health care worth standing on its own in the health-care world—which I agree with 100 percent. I also understand that no matter what I think about therapeutic massage and its awesomeness and benefits (and that “everybody deserves a massage”), not a lot of people—especially where I live—can afford one. Even the very thought of trying to afford one stresses them out.
The only way I know to charm the greater public with the benefits of massage therapy is to take myself out of my safe office and put myself where they are. For me, that’s maintaining my local wellness room and seeing kids like Earl for free.
A huge part of working with Earl was getting over my need to be anything other than what I was in that moment—a caring pair of hands that knew his infrastructure. He could rely on me, and thereby totally rest.
Working in silence, I imagined I was like Earl—always steady under whatever amazing machine he is given to repair on a given day. He doesn’t look too far ahead. He just focuses on what is there in front of him—and he does something about it.


1. David Lauterstein, Putting the Soul Back in the Body: A Manual of Imaginative Anatomy for Massage Therapists (David Lauterstein, 1985).

Originally from Pennsylvania, Kristen Burkholder is a 2000 graduate of the erstwhile Muscular Therapy Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has had a private practice there for almost as long, although she has worked in plenty of spas too. Visit her website at www.belfastmainemassagetherapyreiki.com