The Boys & Girls Club develops mental health services


In the height of fire season, a youngster saw what appeared to be smoke outside the Sonoma Valley Boys & Girls Club and quickly set off the fire alarm, causing momentary mayhem.

There was no smoke, just the haze from the foggers used to keep campers cool on hot summer days. But years of living under the fear of fire have made some children hyper vigilant, a sign of trauma that has the potential to affect their well-being.

Fires, floods, power outages, sweltering smoke and 21 months of pandemic. These are some of the major events that have shaped the experiences of all who live in this region, and for the local youth the impact has been heavy.

According to the county-wide YouthTruth survey, 43% of students have felt so sad or hopeless for two weeks or more that they stopped doing their usual activities in the past year.

Two leaders of nonprofits who were concerned about how these experiences had affected young people in the area sought to expand their services, ensuring that local students had access to mental health care. A partnership between the Boys & Girls Club of Sonoma Valley and the Petaluma People Services Center, funded by the Sonoma Valley Catalyst Fund, is now providing professional emotional behavioral support to the Maxwell Club, a new program that began this month.

“The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the mental health of our young people, as evidenced by the YouthTruth survey and, more importantly, our own eyes. Sadly, the few mental health providers in Sonoma Valley are completely overwhelmed.” said Diana Sanson, Grants Coordinator for the Catalyst Fund. “The Boys & Girls Club Sonoma Valley, in partnership with Petaluma People Services, is well positioned to deliver mental health programs to youth and adolescents in the region in a supportive and trusting environment. “

In addition to its many programs, the Petaluma People Services Center (PPSC) has been an educational institution for over 40 years, said Elece Hempel, executive director of the association that will oversee the mental health intern based at the Maxwell Club. PPSC interns hold graduate degrees in areas such as clinical social work or marriage and family therapy, Hempel said, and they are under the guidance of experienced PPSC staff.

“Trainees are required to complete an unholy number of hours” in training, she said.

To begin with, the intern will lead group sessions as they get to know the young people in the club, develop a relationship and build trust. Club members of the group will learn skills and be empowered “to take care of each other,” Hempel said. Parents and staff will be able to refer children to the program, although parental permission is still required.

Cary Snowden, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Sonoma Valley, said getting professional mental health care at the club has been a concern for her for some time. She saw the youth of Sonoma Valley go through one trauma after another and saw the need for support services soar when COVID-19 caused schools to close in March 2020.

“Sonoma Valley is like an island” when it comes to mental health services, Snowden said. Some families in the valley do not have easy access to services in Petaluma or Santa Rosa, so it made more sense for her to bring these services to the community. The PPSC, which offers a wide range of mental health care in Petaluma for youth, families and beyond, seemed like a natural partner for the club, given its level of experience.

Hempel and Snowden both predict that the need for behavioral support will become clearer and broader than what a trainee can handle. They plan to expand the program to other sites as well as to wrap families in services, so that local youth feel supported on many levels. In addition, the PPSC has the knowledge and skills to connect families with insurance providers who can help cover the costs of seeking advice.

The results of the Sonoma County Office of Education’s YouthTruth survey illustrate the need for such a program, not only in the Sonoma Valley, but across the county. YouthTruth is a national non-profit organization that works with communities to conduct surveys to learn about strengths and weaknesses, and how to make improvements.

YouthTruth Survey.pdf

The SCOE survey included more than 18,000 students (74% of the county’s student population) as well as 35% of parents and guardians and 86% of school staff from the 10 districts (56 schools) in the winter of 2020-2021.

Of those who reported at least one barrier to learning, such as distractions at home or family obligations, 63% were in high school and 65% in college. Depression, stress and anxiety are at the top of the list of barriers that affect 70% of students surveyed about their ability to do their best in school, according to the survey.

Students who identify as non-heterosexual report even higher occurrences of depression, stress, or anxiety in middle and high school. The same goes for those affected by the fires in the region.

The results of the investigation have opened many eyes, Hempel said, adding that the area is “behind” in providing emotional support to young people and families. Parents are trying to figure it all out, she said, and could use more resources.

“Behavioral health needs are not being met,” Hempel said.

Nonprofit executives are excited about the new program and hope to see it grow sooner rather than later.

“It’s long overdue, the community has been waiting for this,” Snowden said.

About Evelyn C. Heim

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