Eagle County Schools increases annual contribution to Hope Center
District will contribute an additional $90,000 per year in order to meet the growing needs of students
In 2018, responding to a growing need for mental health services, the Hope Center expanded into the Eagle River Valley to provide not only 24/7 crisis response in the county but also therapeutic services in the schools.
The Hope Center’s school-based program started with two clinicians in two middle schools and has grown to have 13 clinicians in 15 schools.
“In 2018, when the Hope Center partnered with Eagle County School District, there was an opening for our students to start to realize that it’s OK to not be OK at times and that there are reliable and qualified supports in place to help navigate the challenges of life and well-being,” said Candace Eves, a prevention coordinator for the district. “It was quickly noticed that the need was far greater than we had originally thought; students gravitated toward wanting to know more about themselves and how to better navigate all that life presents to them.”
Now, Eagle County Schools is increasing its financial commitment to the Hope Center in order to meet the growing needs of students. Since 2018, the district has contributed $160,000 annually. But at the Jan. 17 Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Philip Qualman said that this original contribution was “not keeping up with the need.”
This year, Eagle County Schools is increasing this contribution by $90,000 to $250,000.
“The need for quality mental health continues to rise especially with the ramifications from COVID. We are hoping that more students will be identified and supported by the Hope Center counselors,” said Lisa Pisciotta, a prevention coordinator with the school district. “Eagle County School District is surveying all students across the district this year with BESS (Behavior and Emotional Screening System). This screener will help and identify a broader number of students who may be in need of mental health support.”
Carrie Benway, the executive director of the Eagle River Hope Center, said that this increase in annual contribution will “help in our efforts to fund additional clinicians in schools for the 2022-23 school year.”
“Our goal is to secure an additional five clinicians — three elementary clinicians, two high school clinicians — to support the five remaining elementary schools that do not have a Hope Center clinician’s support, as well as provide an additional clinician in each high school for the nearly 1,000 students per school,” Benway said. “We hope that by combining this increase with additional support from individual donors we will be able to place clinicians in every school and ensure that every student in our community has access to behavioral health care.”
In addition to the financial support from the school district, the Hope Center’s school-based services are provided at no cost to students because of the support it receives from various sources. This includes Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, Eagle County 1A tax revenue, private foundations and individual donors. Benway said that the organization partners with the Vail Health Foundation to connect with community members that want to donate.
But, the school district’s support of the mission and work of the Hope Center’s school-based program extends beyond monetary contributions, Benway said.
“The Hope Center’s school-based program is successful because of the close collaboration with teachers, administrators and counseling teams at each school,” she added. “During this first semester alone, we worked with more than 600 students through over 5,000 interactions.”
In the 2021 fall semester, the Hope Center has seen an increase in all its services compared to the previous fall. This includes an increase in not only interactions but initial assessments, crisis assessments, social-emotional check ins, case management, family sessions and group interactions. The organization also created 118 treatment plans in the 2021 semester, but this number was not recorded in the previous school year.
The ability to add more counselors and support in the schools will go a long way in helping existing counselors meet students’ growing needs.
“It would be amazing if we could add more clinicians to our schools so that we can support more families who are navigating these barriers,” said Alyson Fleet Binette, a counselor at Eagle Valley Elementary, who added that barriers to accessing mental health services outside of the school can include transportation, cost, scheduling conflicts and more. “It is hard when we see that the need is there, and the clinician already has a full caseload. If we have more clinicians in our schools, we will be able to better support our community of students and families.”
Hannah Ross, a school-based clinician and lead clinical supervisor for the Hope Center, reiterated that the increased contribution comes at a good time for the organization and the community.
“We know that a lot of our students and families are struggling,” she said. “Over the past few years, we have experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, loss, natural disasters and just the overall stress and challenges that can occur for a lot of people living in this community — sometimes isolation, financial strain, housing instability. We are so grateful to be able to connect with these families at schools, instead of making them feel responsible for another task.”
In moving forward, the goal is to continue to see at least one Hope Center Clinician at every public school in the Eagle County school district and more than one at the district’s larger schools, said Melisa Rewold Thuon, the assistant superintendent of student support services.
“We have started to work with Hope Center on training for school district personnel and would like to see that expanded in the future to build our capacity to meet the depth of need in our community even better and to support students, staff and families in improving behavioral health outcomes,” Rewold-Thuon added. “With the increasing needs we are seeing with students, we want to start to improve services as soon as possible.”
Benway added that beyond bringing more counselors into more schools, the Hope Center is hoping to grow its internship program and “support the local initiative to increase the number of behavioral healthcare professionals in the Eagle River Valley.”
“Placing interns in schools, with a licensed clinician as their supervisor, is an effective model for interns to gain the experience, clinical skills and hours they need to achieve full licensure,” Benway added.
Overall, since 2018, the Hope Center clinicians have helped fill a substantial need for students and the greater community. By providing clinical support and services in school at no cost, the center has reduced many of the barriers students have for accessing care. And the clinicians themselves bring additional supports and resources to the schools.
“With partnering with the Hope Center of the Eagle River Valley, there has been a significant shift in seeing the whole child or whole person when looking at wellness,” Eves said. “By decreasing access, affordability and availability challenges for our students to seek qualified support from a mental health provider in schools, there has been great success in redefining what it means to be well and how we all support each other, especially through the COVID 19 pandemic.”
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.