During the height of the fire season, a youth saw what appeared to be smoke outside the Sonoma Valley Boys & Girls Club, and quickly raised the fire alarm, causing temporary chaos.
There was no smoke, just the mists from the misters that kept the campers cool on hot summer days. But years of living under the fear of fire have left some children hyper-vigilant, a sign of trauma that can affect their well-being.
Fires, floods, power outages, suffocating smoke and 21 months of pandemic. These are some of the key events that have shaped everyone’s experiences in this region, and for the local youth the impact has been heavy.
According to the YouthTruth nationwide survey, 43% of students have felt so sad or hopeless for two weeks or more that they stopped doing usual activities in the past year.
Two nonprofit leaders concerned about the impact of these experiences on local youth have sought to expand their services so that local students can access mental health care. A partnership between Sonoma Valley Boys & Girls Club and Petaluma People Services Center, with funding from Sonoma Valley Catalyst Fund, now provides professional emotional behavioral support at the Maxwell Club, a new program launched this month.
“The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the mental health of our youth, as shown by the YouthTruth survey and, most importantly, our own eyes. Sadly, the few health care providers in Sonoma Valley have been completely overwhelmed,” said Diana Sanson, grant coordinator for the Catalyst Fund. “The Boys & Girls Club Sonoma Valley, in partnership with Petaluma People Services, is well positioned to provide mental health programs to local youth and teens in a supportive and trusted environment.”
In addition to its many programs, the Petaluma People Services Center (PPSC) has been an educational institution for more than 40 years, said Elece Hempel, executive director of the nonprofit that will oversee the mental health intern at the Maxwell Club. Interns at PPSC have advanced degrees in areas such as clinical social work or marriage and family therapy, Hempel said, and they are led by experienced PPSC staff.
“Interns are required to complete an ungodly number of hours” in training, she said.
For starters, the intern will lead group sessions, as they get to know the club’s youth, develop a relationship and instill trust. The club members in the group will learn skills and gain the strength to “take care of each other,” Hempel said. Parents and staff can refer children to the program, although parental consent is always required.
Cary Snowden, president and CEO of Boys & Girls Club of Sonoma Valley, said she has been involved in professional mental health care at the club for some time. She watched Sonoma Valley youth experience one trauma after another and saw the need for support services skyrocket as COVID-19 forced schools to close in March 2020.
“Sonoma Valley is like an island” when it comes to mental health care, Snowden said. Some Valley families don’t have easy access to services in Petaluma or Santa Rosa, so it made more sense for her to bring those services to the community. PPSC, which offers a wide range of mental health services in Petaluma for youth, families and beyond, seemed like a natural partner for the club given their level of experience.
Both Hempel and Snowden anticipate that the need for behavioral support will become more apparent and greater than what an intern can handle. They want to expand the program to other locations and involve families in the services so that local youth feel supported on multiple levels. In addition, PPSC has the knowledge and skills to connect families with insurance companies that can help cover the costs associated with seeking counseling.
The results of the Sonoma County Office of Education’s YouthTruth survey illustrate the need for such a program, not just in Sonoma Valley, but across the county. YouthTruth is a national non-profit organization that works with communities to conduct surveys to understand strengths, weaknesses and make improvements.
SCOE’s survey included more than 18,000 students (74% of the county’s student population), as well as 35% of parents and guardians, and 86% of school staff from the 10 districts (56 schools) in the winter of 2020-21 .
Of those who reported at least one learning disability, such as distractions at home or family obligations, 63% were in high school and 65% in high school. Depression, stress and anxiety topped the list of barriers affecting 70% of students surveyed about their ability to do their best in school, the survey found.
Those students who identify as non-straight report even more cases of depression, stress, or anxiety in both middle and high school. The same goes for those affected by the fires in the region.
The results of the study have opened many eyes, Hempel said, adding that the area is “behind the curve” in providing emotional support to young people and families. Parents are trying to figure it all out, she said, and could use more resources.
“Behavioral health needs have not been met,” Hempel said.
Nonprofit leaders are excited about the new program and hope to see it grow sooner rather than later.
“This is way too late, the community has been waiting for this,” Snowden said.