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A Space to Go for Help


Collingswood Public School District opens new Wellness Center to address mental health

By Kathy Chang

The chatter was light in the new Wellness Center at Collingswood High school.

There was laughter as students with Kristin O’Lexy, program director, and Isaac Mendelsohn, program evaluator – sitting in comfy seats – shared their experiences at music concerts – Taylor Swift, Chris Brown, New Kids on the Block, Boyz II Men…to name a few.

On March 21, the Collingswood Public School District opened the Wellness Center in a space behind the library that was previously used for extra classroom space.

As senior Layla Spearman explained, “It was a sad room” with just a couch and yellow and white walls.

But not anymore. It’s a space where you can talk about those music concerts and so much more.

School officials repurposed and converted the space into a Wellness Center with the receipt of a $1.9 million “Trauma-Informed Care in Schools” grant from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

SAMHSA is an agency that leads public health efforts to advance the behavioral health of the nation.

With the funds, the district was not only able to transform the space, but hire O’Lexy, Mendelsohn, Rebecca Muller, a multi-tiered system of support, Shannon Capraro, social emotional learning, and Theresa McErlean, for administrative support.

The grant funds will be awarded over a period of two years with the opportunity to extend for up to three additional years.

In the additional years, the district looks to bring in additional certified specialists as well as extend services to the middle and elementary schools, said Dr. Karen Principato, supervisor of grants, professional development and special projects.

The Wellness Center provides students with direct access to evidence-based and culturally relevant trauma support services and mental health care during the school day and at no cost to the district.

Millions of people in the U.S. are affected by mental illness each year.

Fast facts, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness.

  • 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year.
  • 1 in 20 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness each year.
  • 1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year.
  • 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10-14.

For students having a bad day, stressed out or looking for someone to talk to at Collingswood High School, they now have a space to go to.

And there will be a certified specialist at the Wellness Center ALWAYS presentto help them.

That piece was missing, according to seniors – Spearman, Jaylin Melton, Lynnea Martinsen, Jasmine Clervil and Chloe Wright – who have been instrumental in helping school officials create a vision for the Wellness Center through the various clubs and organizations they are involved in.

Previously students having that bad day, stressed out or needing someone to talk to, they were sent to the nurse’s office or to the guidance office.

But as these students quickly learned throughout their high school careers, a school nurse and a guidance counselor are stretched thin with so many “other” responsibilities.

Often, the student would be asked “what do you want to do?” They would then be sent to a space and left spending time scrolling through their phone, which in the end does not help the situation, Spearman said.

The Collingswood Public School District has been at the forefront of providing an emphasis on social emotional learning with K-12 offerings and peer mentorship even before COVID-19.

When Superintendent of Schools Dr. Fred McDowell came into the district in 2021, he learned about the strong foundation already set, but also heard from student leaders about the lack of resources that would enable the district to further address the need for a dedicated space for students in need.

Last year, with all the support from McDowell and his administration, the grant team – Principato, O’Lexy, Deb Vesper, Beth Whitehouse, Michael Ostroff, Dan Whalen, Anita Genca and Beth Ann Coleman – filed for the grant application.

Principato said they learned they received the grant – at literally 1 a.m. in the morning.

“It was a happy 6:30 a.m. phone call,” recalled McDowell. “They [grant team] brought this to the finish line.”

For a smaller school district, school officials said they were ecstatic.

“This grant will expedite our ability to meet the critical mental health needs of students in a meaningful way during the school day,” McDowell said. “We’re taking a very intentional approach by integrating mental health services with specific academic support. Our students deserve this level of care, and we believe it will have a positive impact on student achievement for years to come.”

For Spearman, Melton, Martinsen, Clervil and Wright, the Wellness Center is a welcome sign for what they wish they had as a resource when they were younger. They have been working to promote the Wellness Center to their younger peers.

“Knowing that we have an actual place to go reduces the stigma [of mental health],” Martinsen said. “Whereas we didn’t want anyone to know why we were sent to the guidance counselor, on the other hand the wellness center is not a fad, scam or where judgments [are made], it is promoted as a good thing.”

The Wellness Center is staffed during the school day with trained professionals including two social workers, a behavioral specialist, and a nurse practitioner. There are plans to hire a social-emotional learning coach and an academic intervention coach to help the secondary campus integrate social-emotional learning, positive behavior support, and other evidence-based initiatives that align with students’ social, emotional, and mental health.

Officials have expanded the center’s summer hours.

Collingswood Public School District is located in Camden County and serves more than 2,100 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

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