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Making STRIDEs in Door County

Educators and health professionals suggest that mental-health issues are on the rise in United States youth. Last year, the United Way introduced a program called STRIDE to tackle the problem in Door County schools.

STRIDE places mental-health professionals in schools one day a week to provide counseling – a program that has been implemented in the four mainland school districts, and this year, Washington Island’s school will join the program. 

For the 2019-20 school year, the United Way seeks to raise about $90,000 to provide these services, Executive Director Amy Kohnle said, and the organization is half way to that goal.

That’s in addition to the United Way’s annual fundraising goal, which is $625,000 for this year. After kicking off the five-month campaign in August with two events, the organization has reached 10 percent of its goal.

STRIDE has served 32 students so far – ranging in age from seven to a senior in high school – with counseling from mental-health providers.

“The demand is there for more,” Kohnle said. “That just really demonstrates the need. Unfortunately, we can grow that program only as we have dollars and as we have providers. But I’d say the first year was quite successful.”

The STRIDE counselors are unlike the school guidance counselors that many people are familiar with. These are mental-health providers – licensed therapists – whom the public would see outside of school and work.

Therapy provided within the school has a number of benefits, such as eliminating transportation to offices or clinics far from the school, and avoiding missed work and class time to go to those appointments.

Sunrise Elementary School (grades three to five) in Sturgeon Bay implement STRIDE during the last two months of the 2018-19 school year. This year, both Sunrise and Sawyer Elementary (grades one and two) will offer the program.

Brian O’Handley, principal of Sunrise and Sawyer, said teachers are becoming more equipped to recognize the signs of mental-health challenges. Though more training is still needed, he is noticing that teachers hired out of college are better prepared to address the social and emotional mental-health needs of children.

Outward behaviors – yelling and screaming, throwing furniture and hitting staff – can indicate mental-health issues, but sometimes behavior is internalized: A child may be withdrawn or not speak or participate much.

“Behavior is communication,” O’Handley said, “and when you see students struggling like that, that’s when we start to layer on more support and bring parents or families in.”

Most of his staff come from backgrounds in which their needs were met, O’Handley said. They’re working on better understanding the needs of children whose parents might be incarcerated, might have drug or alcohol addictions, or might have experienced a traumatic event.

The United Way has many programs that discuss the ways in which children’s home lives can cross into the classroom, Kohnle said.

“In the county as a whole … [we’re] really trying to get the teachers as many resources as possible so that they can have the most successful students in their classroom,” Kohnle said.

Therapy dogs have been a fun way to help students feel more welcomed at school, especially if they’re having a hard time being separated from their parents.

“Most of the time, it’s pretty cool how that works,” O’Handley said. “They go from being very upset, to hanging out with the dog and walking into the building, and they’re on their way.”

The understanding that children, like adults, have mental-health needs is growing.

“I think most people have started to come around to the idea of mental health being just as normal as taking your kid to the doctor,” O’Handley said. “If I see my child has a limp, I’m taking them to the doctor. Their social and emotional needs are just as important.”

Now that STRIDE will be offered at both of his schools this year, O’Handley is looking forward to getting students the help they need, working on staff professional development, and creating classrooms and spaces that are welcoming to all.

If there’s a silver lining to the situation, it’s that Door County schools are working to collaborate with each other and with local law-enforcement officials to ensure the safety and well-being of all students, O’Handley said.

Aside from STRIDE, the United Way continues work on its three focus areas – education, healthy lifestyles and financial stability – by working with budget counseling services, being involved in affordable-housing discussions and striving to ensure that there are child-care assistants available.

“The people who have the ability to give and support our charities and nonprofits, they’re so generous. And that’s a great thing,” Kohnle said. “We’re really lucky.”

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