Paying it forward: Teenager’s book designed to help children with anxiety

Samantha Bodnar is the author of “Dusty’s Garden,” an anxiety workbook and story designed to help other kids overcome the same feelings she’s learned to manage.

“Dusty’s Garden” is the creation of 14-year-old Clearview Regional High School freshman Samantha Bodnar, a workbook and story that she wrote in order to help others with anxiety after having battled such issues herself since first grade. (Photo provided)

Imagine being a 7- or  8-year-old kid, going about what should be a carefree day as a first grader when suddenly you are crippled with overwhelming senses of fear, apprehension and stress. 

It’s one thing for an adult to deal with such anxieties. But for an elementary school student, it’s surely more frightening.

“It was scary at the beginning because I didn’t know what was happening, or why this was going on, why my body felt like that,” Samantha Bodnar said. “But as I learned more about what I was facing and got presented the tools to help me, I feel like it helped me when I was faced with a panic attack.”

Bodnar has lived with anxiety for seven years. But she’s matured from a kid being overwhelmed with those alarming feelings into a teenager who has learned how to manage them, thanks to working with psychologists and regularly reading anxiety workbooks and stories.

And now Bodnar is paying it forward.

Bodnar, a 14-year-old freshman at Clearview Regional High School, wrote “Dusty’s Garden,” an anxiety workbook and story to help other kids combat those same feelings and learn to deal with them easier, too. A tribute to her late cat, Dusty, five dozen copies of Bodnar’s book shipped last week and are available for purchase at the book project’s website, dustysgarden.com.

“I was laying in my bed, falling asleep when the idea all of a sudden came to me, to use this garden I had created in fourth grade to help other people who also struggled with anxiety,” Bodnar said. “I’ve always been one of those people looking for an idea. And then my childhood cat, Dusty, passed away (last fall). I wanted to do a business that could be dedicated to him. I feel like God really used him as a tool to help me when I was struggling.”

Bodnar credited Dawn Huebner’s “What Do You Do When You Worry Too Much” as a workbook that helped her own struggles with anxiety. Her book builds on some of the lessons she used from that story, which likens worries to tomatoes.

“Your worries are like tomatoes, and when they get too big you have to chop them down,” Bodnar said. “That really helped me, knowing they could be represented into something visual you could actually see and cut down. It got my idea for Dusty’s Garden, but instead of just chopping them down and having them lay on the ground, I decided why not turn them into something good-tasting so the outcome is better than just the worry that you had? I decided to take those tomatoes and squish them into ketchup and had the cat sell the ketchup.”

Giving her cat, Dusty, the starring role was a smart idea, of course. Who doesn’t want to read a story about a cute animal?

“I think cats tend to be very relatable so the concept of coming from a pet perspective, I think it will attract more children, and it’s a great way to get the information out there,” said Cheryl Bodnar, Samantha’s mother. “With COVID, I think there’s a lot of anxiety right now. So anything she can do to help other kids cope and be able to move forward, I think it’s important.”

Cheryl Bodnar should know a good idea and business venture when she sees one. She works as the assistant director for faculty programs at the Rowan Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Cheryl helped proofread the first draft of the story, a Rowan colleague chipped in with editorial advice and a therapist in their neighborhood lent some psychologist expertise. But “Dusty’s Garden” was all the creation of Samantha Bodnar.

“She came to me back in pre-pandemic. She’d written a draft of the story,” Cheryl Bodnar said. “I’m very proud of her. It’s amazing to watch how far she’s come. She started with having her anxiety cripple her, and then through the different experiences we went through with therapists and reading workbooks, she’s really come into her own. 

“She’s taken it upon herself to not only to work at bettering herself and learning how to cope better, but she saw what a benefit the exercises and tools were for her and it really motivated her to share with others. It makes me excited to see her taking something that’s worked so well for her and get it out in the public to help other kids as well.”

“Dusty’s Garden” also presented Bodnar with a new career goal. Although she only began high school last week, Bodnar hopes to pursue a career in psychology and use pet therapy to help children.

“Based on this book, it made me realize that psychology is a place (I could work in),” she said. “I never thought about it before, but after doing this, that feels like the place I’m supposed to be and a place I can help people based on the experiences I’ve had.”

In the coming months, Samantha Bodnar hopes to share her story at local libraries and at Main St. events, should the pandemic cooperate. Until then, you can find out more about Bodnar and “Dusty’s Garden” at dustysgarden.com.