Pilot program brings long-awaited mental health services to South San ISD

Facing severe budget cuts in 2019, the leaders of six nonprofit agencies in San Antonio put their limited resources into a single basket — South San Antonio Independent School District.

Despite the closure of schools in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, the San Antonio Mobile Mental Wellness Collaborative — the organization the agencies formed last year — is bringing much-needed mental health services to the South Side.

Requests for assistance come in daily on the district’s wellness center hotline, said Talli Goldman-Dolge, CEO of Jewish Family Service San Antonio, which provides three clinicians for the program.

At least 51 referrals to these agencies have been processed over the phone since the collaborative’s center at Athens Elementary School closed in mid-March.

Talli Dolge of Jewish Family Service, left, talks to U.S. Rep. Will Hurd about the San Antonio Mobile Mental Wellness Partnership, which is housed in the annex building of Athens Elementary School, on  Feb. 20. The pilot program provides mental health resources to students of the South San ISD.

Dolge said some of the clients calling are concerned about losing their jobs, others lament the loss of traditional high school rituals such as prom and graduation ceremonies, and some struggle with filling in for their kids’ teachers.

“There is no road map for this,” she said. “I’m so proud that we were able to get this started when we did.”

The pandemic stresses everyone, but especially those with limited access to health care, Dolge said.

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Through the collaborative, South San ISD elementary, middle and high school students and their families can call one number and get a consultation. Those who qualify will get a referral for case management, counseling, psychiatric care, educational workshops or addiction therapy.

This is an important lifeline for a district that serves children from economically disadvantaged households.

Four miles southwest of downtown, there are few highly skilled, high-paying jobs available.

The average household income is $48,132 for those who live in the 78224, 78242 and 78211 ZIP codes. More than 27 percent do not have health insurance, and 22 percent live below the federal poverty line.

U.S. Rep. Will Hurd jokes with student Agustin Perez earlier this year at the South San ISD Care Zone, a community center where the San Antonio Mobile Mental Wellness Collaborative set up shop.

Last spring, tensions between the school district’s board of trustees and its constituents reached a boiling point.

Students asked the board to approve turning a vacant school building into a community center with mental health services or to allocate funding to hire more social workers.

“Suicide and depression can’t wait, and neither should we,” said then-sophomore Evany Gonzalez in a rebuke of board members’ inaction at an April 2019 meeting.

South San High School’s Enrichment Club members had been appealing for help for more than three years at that point. Their main complaint: South San employed one social worker for its 9,000 students, much less than what’s offered at other school districts in the city.

Behavioral specialist Susan Arciniega has been with the district for 24 years, trying to put out fires at 17 campuses and helping teachers recognize the signs of depression and suicidal thoughts.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people in the U.S. Between 2007 and 2017, suicide rates among those ages 10 to 24 jumped 56 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The few affordable clinics in the area closed by 5 p.m. most days, said South San senior Marc Mendiola, which left his classmates with little options for finding mental health care.

The San Antonio Mobile Mental Wellness Collaborative is housed in the annex building of Athens Elementary School. The program was formed to counter deep funding cuts and address the need for improved mental health services for South San ISD students, staff and families.

Leslie Allison, a behavioral health clinical manager for Methodist Healthcare Ministries who runs health clinics at other schools, said programs like these make a difference because they provide services to students who, in many cases, can’t get help through the traditional health care system.

Allison, who isn’t involved with the South San program, said these school-based collaborations that tap into community resources will help reach adolescents in need of extra support.

“No one size fits all, but you’ve got to start somewhere,” she said.

Dolge at Jewish Family Service said she saw media reports of South San students at board meetings and wanted to help. But at that time, she had just learned that the organization was losing 75 percent of the budget for providing counseling, case management and psychiatric services.

The biggest cuts occurred when two of its biggest benefactors, United Way and the San Antonio Area Foundation, changed strategy for allocating annual grants. She found that her organization wasn’t alone.

Family Service Association, Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas, Rise Recovery, Communities in Schools and Clarity Child Guidance Center were also looking for ways to stay afloat.

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Some of their services and clients overlapped. Three agencies were already providing services in the South San area, so it was an easy decision for the executive directors to pool their resources there.

The San Antonio Mobile Mental Wellness Collaborative set up shop inside the South San ISD Care Zone, a community center that opened in August on the Athens Elementary School campus.

The pilot program cost $616,238.

The collaborative relies on revenue from Medicaid and its partner agencies’ fundraising efforts. But during the pandemic, when the program needed to switch to telehealth, help came from local donors.

Jewish Family Service received a $25,000 emergency grant to provide phones for clients from a local COVID-19 Response Fund. That’s a pool of money from some of the city’s largest philanthropic organizations, including the Harvey E. Najim, H.E. Butt, Nancy Smith Hurd and John L. Santikos foundations.

The $6.3 million fund is managed by the San Antonio Area Foundation and the United Way of San Antonio.

“I think the best thing is that it’s open to the community — not just South San kids,” said Agustin Perez, an 18-year-old South San High School senior.

Many of his classmates work after school to supplement their family’s income and help raise younger siblings. Perez works at a store in South Park Mall and said the pressure from his parents to succeed can be daunting.

His dad started working maintenance jobs at age 12, and his mother is a supervisor at a medical clinic.

“They just want us to keep going and thrive,” he said. “They want us to continue to do the things that they weren’t able to do.”

Perez plans to enroll at San Antonio College to study political science and psychology. Eventually, he wants to go to law school.

In February, Perez and fellow senior Mendiola sat down with Republican Congressman Will Hurd when he visited the Care Zone. They told him how long it took for their Enrichment Club to get additional sufficient mental health services for their classmates.

Hurd, a San Antonio native, said, “I don’t think you appreciate how big of a deal this is.”

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the facility was open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, also serving as a study center with GED classes, a small food pantry and clothing program.

Since November, the pilot program has provided behavioral health and social services to more than 1,400 people and scheduled 600 individual and group counseling sessions, program director Ramona Montoya-Cuellar said.

“We never thought we would see these numbers,” Dolge told South San board members at a meeting last month. “We thought we’d maybe see 50 kids this first year, but we are still getting requests for services.”

Dolge says the program could be replicated at other school districts. She’s in talks with other superintendents interested in starting a program for their students.

Interim Superintendent Dolores Sendejo, who was hired in July after the contentious board meetings, said the program quickly became “a shining light for our district.”

She said the district has agreed to fund the program in coming year.

Laura Garcia covers the health care industry in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. To read more from Laura, become a subscriber. laura.garcia@express-news.net | Twitter: @Reporter_Laura

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