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As the 2020 school year wrapped up, students at Clague Middle School on Ann Arbor’s northeast side were checking out books from a new mental health library—made possible by mini-grant funding from the Washtenaw County Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage
The school mental health mini-grants—up to $5,000 per school, as determined by the Washtenaw Intermediate School District—allow schools to choose their own ways to address mental health stigma and support the well-being of their students.
The grants first began in 2019 and support a variety of unique school-based programs across Washtenaw County—often developed and led by students themselves. For the 2020-21 school year, the program’s eligibility expanded past high schools to include middle schools, like Clague, raising the total number of participating schools from 14 to 20.
A key aspect for all programs is making sure that students and families are aware of the CARES number—734-544-3050—which provides 24/7 access to WCCMH services and information for all residents of Washtenaw County, regardless of their insurance status.
A mental health library
Kathryn Hoover is a middle school counselor at Clague who was heavily involved in her school’s mini-grant project. When she heard about the opportunity, she and other counselors started thinking of novel ways they could help students while they were still learning remotely.
“Saying that it’s a challenge to be a counselor in a virtual setting is an understatement,” says Hoover. “Being able to go into our classrooms and hallways—it’s how we know what’s truly going on with our students.”
They also wanted to build something sustainable that they could expand later.
Hoover and the other counselors came up with the idea of a mental health library—books that support the social and emotional wellness of students. They connected with the school librarian about how to check out digital books and make the idea work amid the pandemic.
The project focused on filling gaps within the school’s existing library—purchasing more titles on racial identity, social justice, sexual identity, social and emotional learning, and bullying. Hoover notes that all of these issues connect to students’ mental health and well-being.
“It was exciting—realizing that when you offer students stories that allow them to see their experiences in the lives of others, it can reduce isolation and help them not feel alone,” says Hoover. “Also, if they read about something they’re not familiar with, like a disability, it’s going to increase their empathy.”
Hoover says that when she’s counseling students, she loves to suggest reading materials that help students on their journey.
The school’s Peer-to-Peer students, who already partner with Michigan Medicine's Depression Center to foster mental health awareness, played a large role in the project as well—from selecting the titles to developing a school-wide lesson that introduced other students to the importance of mental health care and the new library resources.
In addition to digital copies of the books, the school purchased hard copies so students would have them when they returned to the classroom setting. “We want to make it more normal to talk about mental health than ever before. So we have a display—a special place in the library—to make it a part of their everyday life and to normalize it as a school.”
The library has already been a success, surpassing their initial expectations. “We were shocked to see we had 95 checkouts from the digital library at the end of the school year,” says Hoover. “That told us our kids were interested in these topics.”
Word of the project has gotten out through social media groups for counselors and educators. “Counselors at different schools across the country have seen what we’re doing,” notes Hoover. “And now they're replicating what we did. There's even one outside of the country.”
“As a school counselor, I’m so appreciative that these funds were available,” she adds. “We always have ideas for things—ways to support our schools and students. So to have these funds to be creative—to have the freedom to do this—that was a gift.”
Mental health care kits
School projects vary widely as each school chooses programs adapted to its needs. Another participating school was the Washtenaw Alliance for Virtual Education (WAVE), a public high school program for students across Washtenaw County seeking an alternative to the traditional high school model through year-long, individualized programming, both online and in-person.
Lauren Keough, a social worker with WAVE, worked closely with students on their mental health mini-grant. Similar to Clague, they knew they needed to brainstorm a creative way to reach students during completely virtual learning. WAVE students came up with the idea of mental health care kits.
“It was very empowering for the students who wrote the grant,” says Keough. “It was minimal support from us. They did the research on what they wanted to purchase for the kits. For them to see that we trusted them to do something like this was very meaningful. It gave the opportunity for them to see things through—from writing the grant and then receiving the supplies.”
The mental health care kits had two key components—mental health information and resources, as well as supplies.
“The care kits have resources and information about community partners,” says Keough. “Washtenaw County Community Mental Health, Ellie’s Place, Corner Health, Ozone House, and more. We also included things like the #wishyouknew mental health materials.”
There were also items like headphones, fidget spinners, silly putty, and hot chocolate mix. “Our hope was to communicate that all of these resources are available, while also inspiring [students] with some fun things,” explains Keough.
And while they may seem like everyday items on the surface, youth chose specific things that could be used for managing one’s mental health. For example, headphones to create quiet spaces to cope with emotions; a fidget spinner and silly putty to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety; and hot chocolate to take a break for self care.
The mental health care kits proved to be a success—among both students and their parents. “The students were opening the information, reading through it, and then talking to each other about it,” says Monique Uzelac, a principal at WAVE.
“At first, I was skeptical—that they would just use items like the silly putty and headphones,” Uzelac recalls. “So it was amazing to watch the students absorb the information. The parents were also grateful.”
“We would have been reluctant to sponsor fun bags,” Uzelac continues, “but seeing the impact, it will make us think of more creative things to do in the future like this.”
Keough also says she was concerned with the declining number of requests for support during the pandemic, especially since so many of her students were working in virtual environments.
“This was another way to check in and communicate with those we weren’t seeing. One of our staff members took kits to all of the Milan area students—over 20 deliveries—and was able to connect with parents and students we’d previously been unsuccessful reaching.”
“I can’t stress enough the impact of going to students’ homes—and with something fun, instead of focusing on things like ‘Where are you?’ or ‘Why aren’t you doing your school work?’” Keough adds.
There’s even more in the works among WAVE students—with plans to launch a mental health care podcast next year. They purchased podcast kits and laid the groundwork for a podcast. “A core group of students researched and wrote the script. And we had some participants who were usually less likely to speak up—they changed, shifted, and actually participated.”
Keough and Uzelac expressed their gratitude for millage funding enabling this program. “Without the mini-grants, we would have had zero funding for this support,” says Keough.
“A life saver” for students with higher needs
Even in schools where students could still attend in-person classes, the mini-grants proved helpful.
Shelley Rychener is a school social worker with Dexter Alternative School—a high school that caters to students who are credit deficient. A significant portion of these students also have mental health needs—needs which can interfere with their ability to graduate.
“For us, this grant was kind of a life saver,” says Rychener. “Especially with COVID.” While the students were able to resume in-person classes, Rychener says that the pandemic continued to disrupt their typical curriculum and structure.
The biggest challenge was coming up with a program that engaged students and catered to their strengths, all within the small setting of their classroom. They also wanted to prioritize building a sense of community. They ultimately decided to purchase art and cooking supplies—tools that could be used to help achieve all of these goals.
“We set up an art therapy area—little stations for kids having a hard time,” says Rychener. “The students could use painting, beading, cross stitching—all kinds of things that act as a stress relief.” Rychener notes the impact this made during a challenging time, helping students build community within their room.
“They were things that brought our kids and our whole team together,” Rychener says, adding that the flexibility of the mini-grant was key to its success: “each community can use it where they know they can make a difference.”
More schools will be touched by the programming
For the 2021-2022 school year, the millage mini-grants will have a larger reach than ever.
On August 9th, 2021, the Millage Advisory Committee approved $132,000 to continue the mini-grants in Washtenaw County schools through 2023. The Washtenaw Intermediate School District also expects to award the grants to more schools—expanding the grantees from 20 to 24 schools.
Learn more about all of the past mini-grant recipients and their programs here, beginning on page 21.
Story by Gregory Powers