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Community Mental Health - Millage News

Posted on: November 1, 2023

Zen spaces, support animals, and more. Millage mini-grants fund emotional supports for students

Mocha_Skyline High School_1

Since 2019, the Washtenaw County Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage has provided the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD)  with funding for mini-grants to create school-based programs that support students’ mental wellness. At each school, counselors, administrators, and students work together to develop mini-grant proposals and implement the projects. 

In the 2022 academic year, 16 schools across the district received mini-grants to develop projects that engage students who don’t usually join mental wellness programs. The goal: to foster communication about mental health between these students and trusted adults. 

With their grants–up to $5,000 each–several of these schools chose to create Zen rooms, also called calming spaces or wellness centers, which are areas in a school that help students practice coping skills and self-regulation. Students can take a short time in the rooms to feel calm. 

Manchester schools choose zen room with counselors, Scarlett opts for group therapy

When Maddy Stephens, a school counselor at Manchester Junior and Senior High School, first heard about the mini-grants, she spoke to school leaders and introduced the idea of submitting a proposal. School leaders and the school’s student intervention team (a group of educators and specialists who work together to meet students' social, behavioral, and academic needs) decided a Zen room would help students learn about mental health coping mechanisms. They engaged a group of students who were in the drug prevention program to lead the work. 

The space, designed by students and teachers in concert, provides opportunities for students to learn self-regulation while having readily available access to counselors. Stephens said she thought the room would give students a space to take that break while talking with counselors about what they were going through and how to continue to use coping mechanisms to make it through the day. 

At Scarlett Middle School on the southeast side of the county, students created a group therapy room with their grant funds. Students now use the space to participate in group programs for anxiety, depression, and grief. There are also tools to help support emotional regulation and focus, like focus aids and snacks.

Students were directly involved in setting up the spaces.

Julie, a senior at one of the schools, said that being involved in the project planning and setup made her feel valued by the adults at her school. “It was a really nice experience. I mean, it just made me feel good that adults cared…that our voices were heard and that we were able to contribute to this project.” 

Bianca Humphries, a school counselor at Scarlett Middle School, felt that getting students to help with setup primed them for participating in the group programs and made them feel invested in the space. “[T]he students were involved in setting up the space… It was so effective to have additional things to be doing while we were talking about what was going on. And so I appreciated having a wide, wide range of students coming to take part in that ownership.”

Maddy Stephens believes that the space will continue to improve students' mental health. “[W]hen I can visibly see a student going through a hard time and they come down and show me their pass and then sit down with the box of fidgets or a coloring book or something like that, they just pull it out. They do it themselves. It helps them, and then they can come in and say, I'm feeling better,” says Stephens.

Dogs build community and provide emotional support

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When students started coming back to school after the COVID-19 pandemic, Casey Elmore, now lead principal of Skyline High School, noticed that students were having a hard time adjusting to being back in school. Terri Patterson, Skyline’s small learning community principal for integrity and diversity, says she realized that students and the entire school community needed a way to feel connected to each other again. 

For Skyline, the mini-grant funding came at the right time to support Mocha, the school’s emotional support dog. Mocha started her training last school year and is now at school five days per week. She is trained with an eco-collar to be off-leash in some areas of the school and can be called to classrooms with trained teachers to support their students. In addition to being present in some classrooms and in the common areas, the school wants to incorporate her into their group therapy meetings. 

Mocha is a facilitator of social connection, which is especially important for incoming first-year students who may have few friends. Chloe, a student at one of the schools that used its mini-grant for support dogs, says the dog has helped her make friends. “I'm not that much of a social person, so it's definitely helped me to get to know more people.”

Parents also started to connect to the school through Mocha. During the school’s open house, parents actively look for Mocha, Patterson says. Parents take pictures of Mocha because their children talk about her so often. “I think it builds community. I think parents see the benefit of having Mocha here.”

Like Mocha, Floyd and Shadow, Whitmore Lake’s emotional support dogs, are popular among students, parents, and other school staff. Floyd, for example, supports students and parents during difficult conversations, “Oftentimes being able to pet a dog... can make things a little bit easier in my office,” says Nicole Cotton. “Just having a dog there that you can pet and that calm presence, that non-judgmental presence, that is pretty rare in a middle high school setting.”

Other staff members have noticed the impact that Floyd has on their students, as well. A speech and language pathologist at Whitmore Lake, Rachel Shilling, says, “For some of my students, connecting with other people is hard and scary. But when Floyd is there, it's like they have an instant connection with him, and their walls come down. They become more communicative, more vulnerable, and more animated than they are with other people. It really sets the tone for our work together.”

Apply for a mini-grant

Any schools interested in applying for a mini-grant during the 2023 academic year can contact Shannon Novara at [email protected].

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