By Hannah Poturalski
MIDDLETOWN — One local nonprofit agency is expanding its focus to include more youth services.
Community Behavioral Health — run by Community First Solutions — has been operating on Breiel Boulevard in Middletown since acquiring Comprehensive Counseling of Middletown in 2009, as well as having a Hamilton location.
The agency is kicking off its Youth First initiative, and has been meeting with community organizations and stakeholders, including the juvenile justice center and public and private schools, to identify specific needs for customized programs, said Tricia Smith, mental health clinical supervisor.
“Youth First is a change in approach and we’re expanding to be more evidence based,” Smith said. “We’re in a really good position right now; we’re able to develop programs based on what the community tells us is needed.”
Just under 250 children were served by the nonprofit during fiscal year 2013.As part of the Youth First expansion, Smith said the Seven Challenges program is expanding to Edgewood and Middletown high schools. The evidence-based program addresses co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders in children ages 13-18.
“It will teach decision-making skills and explore all the issues that cause them to do (drugs),” Smith said. “It’s very individualized with different steps. It’s like a treatment program.”
Michael Imhoff, school psychologist at Edgewood High School, said he reached out to Community Behavioral Health last October when he was looking for a mental health agency that could provide more resources for the student population.
The program will kick off at Edgewood in the next two weeks, and Imhoff hopes it will eventually expand to the middle school.
“We have students in need of mental health and substance abuse counseling,” Imhoff said. “These days parents can’t afford counseling on their own.”
CBH will provide a counselor for the program, which will run after school one to two times a week. Imhoff said what attracted him to Seven Challenges over other efforts is the research-based approach rather than philosophical.
“When you tell an adolescent ‘Don’t do this,’ it’s not an effective way to make change,” Imhoff said. “(Seven Challenges) starts where the child is and the student identifies their motivators for change.”
Russ Fussnecker, Edgewood High School principal, said the school has been able to reduce its disciplinary actions by 50 percent over the past few years as the students and staff have worked toward improving the culture. He said students now feel more comfortable to come forward with their problems and ask for help.
“We need to offer more for emotional needs; they’re not getting the help they need outside of school,” Fussnecker said.
“Our jobs have changed as educators and we’re fortunate to have an organization come in to help us.”
To help younger students, Smith said CBH has partnered with Middletown’s Parent Resource Center — inside the Robert Sonny Hill Community Center, 800 Lafayette Ave. — to offer a new School and Social Readiness Group for ages three to eight in need of social skills and behavioral and emotional support.
The program will run from 4 to 5 p.m. Tuesdays beginning Feb. 4. Intake screenings will be held at 12:30 p.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. Jan. 20, and 3 and 4 p.m. Jan. 27 at the resource center.
“It’s not academic based, but for the behaviors that get in the way of learning,” Smith said. “It’s focused for kids having behavioral problems, social skill deficiencies or (needing) emotional regulation.”
Verlena Stewart, manager at the Parent Resource Center, said this new program will complement the kindergarten readiness program already offered. The program will teach children socialization skills such as sharing and learning to play well with others, as well as listening and developing independence.
“It’s going to be a tremendous asset for us,” Stewart said. “We have a large community without transportation that walk to the center … our goal is to collaborate with other agencies to bring their programs here.”