This fall, a new Rainier Foothills Wellness Foundation pilot program will be providing volunteer mentors and professional mental health workers to Enumclaw and White River middle schools.
All last year, the local nonprofit’s Integrated Students Support Planning Coordinator Greta Huntley has been working with the two school districts to determine what sort of support local middle school students needed the most.
“The two biggest areas of need identified in our middle schools are a community mentoring program and mental health support,” Huntley said in a recent interview.
Now armed with a CHI Franciscan grant of nearly $102,000, the Foundation’s Middle School Integrated Student Supports Initiative can move forward with partnering with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound and NEXUS to provide services for those needs in the new school year.
The grant specifically funds Huntley’s position at the Foundation for another year, as well her program’s operations, said Jay Thomas, Executive Director of the Rainier Foothills Wellness Foundation; Big Brothers Big Sisters and other partners will not receive funds from the grant.
The reason the Foundation and local school districts want to focus on middle schools — rather than elementary or high schools — is because those three years can have a huge impact on a students life, even after high school, said Enumclaw School District Superintendent Mike Nelson.
“We find that some of our students need extra support during these times of transitioning school levels,” Nelson said. “We hope this program will support and help our students who struggle with this type of transition and might be in need of a mentor or a significant adult.”
Huntley cited a John Hopkins University study that claimed students who have an unsuccessful sixth or ninth grade transition only have a 20 percent chance to graduate high school.
Additionally, the study claimed 40 percent of eventual dropouts can be identified by sixth grade, and three-quarters of drop outs by ninth grade.
The 2016 Washington State Healthy Youth Survey also identified numerous mental health concerns among this age group.
According to the survey, led by multiple state departments, 23 percent of Enumclaw and White River eighth graders reported depression was affecting their usual daily activities, and another quarter reported they were uncontrollably anxious every day for the past two weeks.
Additionally, 10 percent of sixth graders reported having seriously considered suicide; that number grows to 38 percent when only asking LGBTQ+ students, and a quarter of those students reported having already attempted suicide.
Huntley hopes pairing at-risk students up with a mentor will help alleviate anxiety and improve mental health in students.
“Students who are not connected to sports or clubs or are able to participate in after school activities… they’re feeling really isolated at home, and this offers a way to get those kids connected with something, someone, and have a positive relationship,” she continued.
Jolynn Kenney, Big Brothers Big Sisters’ vice president of programs, agreed that having a positive mentor can do wonders for a child’s mental health.
“It’s important to help youth gain a sense of belonging and know that they have people in their corner including their parents, mentors and school staff,” she wrote in an email interview. “Mentors can be role models for positive, healthy relationships and can be a listening ear when youth are trying to work through complicated situations with peers or at school or home.”
Both Huntley and Kenney will be actively looking for Enumclaw and Buckley locals who are interested in mentoring a middle school student.
“Mentors come from a variety of life experiences and don’t need formal experience working with youth to make a positive impact,” Kenney said. “All mentors will be screened and trained by Big Brothers Big Sisters’ staff. We will provide mentor’s training before meeting a student and all mentors receive ongoing support and coaching throughout the program.”
According to Huntley, partnerships will be partly determined by shared interests, and volunteers should be at least available to spend four hours a month with their mentee.
“That could look like once a week going out to lunch, or it can be one day a month spending an afternoon together,” she said. “A lot of mentors will find more time than that.”
So far, Huntley said the community feedback for this pilot program has been strong.
“I’ve been blown away by the support and interest the community has shown in backing a program like this,” she said. “I’m excited to be able to bring it to the community.”
Those interested in becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister on the Plateau can contact Huntley at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by contacting Big Brother Big Sister of Puget Sound at https://inspirebig.org/volunteer/.
MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONALS
The CHI Franciscan grant will also help the Rainier Foothills Wellness Foundation facilitate increased access to professional health workers from NEXUS for middle school students and their families, Huntley said, though some of these details are still being ironed out.
“We have a few different programs we are hoping to pilot with them this year, one being a therapist-led discussion group for middle school parents,” Huntley continued.
This discussion group is expected to be hosted at the Enumclaw and Buckley libraries “to bring an opportunity for parents to connect and share resources and support for one another as they raise their middle school youth.”
According to the Enumclaw library’s event page, the Parenting Middle Schoolers Discussion Group will be meeting every other Monday from Sept. 9 through Dec. 16 from 7 to 8 p.m.
The discussion group is free, and there’s no need to RSVP.
The discussion group at the Buckley library has yet to have dates or times set.
Additionally, Huntley is working with NEXUS and the National Alliance on Mental Illness to bring more mental health support and information into middle schools.
While NEXUS will be bringing in more trained counselors to both schools, NAMI is bringing its “Ending the Silence” program to Enumclaw classrooms.
Huntley said the program brings in young adults who have overcome their personal mental health challenges to present their experiences and how to seek help.
A similar program will also be made available to parents and other community members in a continuation of last year’s three-part series about anxiety and mental illnesses in students, tentatively scheduled to begin in October.