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Unique mental health program will expire unless Legislature extends grant

For a rural student who has mental health issues, just getting to appointments with a mental health professional whose office is miles away can be a challenge. "It can be very labor intensive for the parent and it also causes the kids to miss a lot of school," said Sherri Broderius, superintendent of the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City School District.

The routine is pretty typical, she said. A parent has to leave work, drive to the school, take their child out of class, drive to the hour-long appointment, drive the child back to school and then return to work.

The excursion can easily involve 100 miles and two to four hours of time.

With $3 gas, concerns about a parent losing a job and lost school time for the child, it's no wonder mental illness can go untreated in children.

That's why area school officials including Broderius have been so pleased with a school-linked mental health program that brings services to the students rather than making students come to them.

In a partnership with area schools and Woodland Centers, a mental health center based in Willmar, practitioners and professionals conduct counseling sessions at the individual schools with students diagnosed with mental health issues.

The program also involves vital communication between school officials and Woodland Centers about the child's health and needs and family involvement.

"It's got every component we need to get these services to kids," Broderius said. "I cannot say enough good about that program."

Because students are able to walk down the school hall for appointments, they miss very little class time and improve their mental health wellness at the same time. It results in healthy children who have a better chance of succeeding academically, she said.

"We've reduced barriers," said Kim Hanson, unit director for youth services at Woodland Centers. "Kids are getting more consistent care in some cases. Schools are very pleased with what we're doing," Hanson said.

A $1 million grant from the Department of Human Services has allowed Woodland Centers to bring the services to 10 area schools districts -- Litchfield, ACGC, BOLD, Renville County West, Willmar, New London-Spicer, Montevideo, MACCRAY, Lac qui Parle Valley and Yellow Medicine East.

But that grant runs out June 30.

Hanson is hoping the Legislature will approve a two-year extension for the grant.

If that doesn't happen, Broderius said she's hoping her cash-strapped district can find grants or a local private sponsor to pay the financial gap to sustain the program at ACGC.

Karen Norell, the high school principal at YME, is doing the same thing.

"We absolutely don't think we can operate without the service," Norell said.

"It's valuable for our families and our kids," she said, because it helps families "stay united and stay local and address the needs that they have."

Norell said she's "quite worried" that when the grant ends, students at YME will not have adequate services.

She's hoping that with Woodland's third-party billing, YME can find the dollars to support the program if the Legislature does not allocate a two-year grant extension.

Schools are learning they "can't count on the state and we can't count on the feds to help with kids like this," said Broderius, who is asking for individuals or business owners who may have been helped by mental health care to step up financially and keep the program going at ACGC.

"I see how many kids they're helping," said Broderius, adding that the number of students using the service has increased since it started. She credits that to the convenience of having mental health practitioners and professionals close by and thus easily accessible.

The end result, she said, is students with mental illness are getting healthy and staying in school. "That's what we want," she said.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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