OCOF celebrates five years of success

By Khristian Howard

Waco teems with possibilities for youth to thrive. Despite the abundance of youth-focused opportunities, many youth are unable to take full advantage and develop into the best versions of themselves. Unmet mental health needs and fragmented home life stunt the success of many youth, barring them from healthy growth and development.

As the local mental health authority, Heart of Texas Region MHMR has worked for more than 50 years to address these mental health needs. Throughout this time, MHMR began to visualize the impact that collaborative efforts could have on child and adolescent mental health.

In 2015, leaders created Our Community Our Future (OCOF) at MHMR’s Klaras Center for Families. They recognized an opportunity to bring local mental health and youth-serving professionals together to streamline services.

The original members of the OCOF team included, Klaras Center for Families, MHMR, juvenile justice departments, school districts, and Child Protective Services. Following a system-of-care model, OCOF builds on the following principles: a youth-driven focus, community-based efforts, and culturally and linguistically appropriate service.

Shortly after beginning work towards their mission, the team received a $3.4 million grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The grant program, titled “Closing the Gaps,” centered around three main dimensions: school-based mental health, transition age youth (TAY), and crisis respite for youth.

The “Closing the Gaps” initiative ended this year, and OCOF has much reason to be proud. Over the past five years, the committee and the community have been responsible for unprecedented change in the lives of children, adolescents, and young adults with mental health and social care needs.

Often, transitions like these are swept over in anticipation for future initiatives, but Prosper Waco wants to take time to acknowledge, celebrate, and appreciate the work of OCOF and to share their success with the community.

Zeroing in on the impact on school-based mental health, transition age youth (TAY), and crisis respite for youth, we will take a retrospective look at OCOF and their work under the SAMHSA grant. Join us as we remember and give thanks.

School Based Mental Health

In an interview with Prosper Waco for Waco TV, Telawna Kirbie, OCOF chair and director of clinical services for Klaras Center for Families, spokewas asked about the impetus for school-based mental health. “Students will not be as successful academically if their mental health needs go unmet,” she said. Knowing this, OCOF prioritized building this care into the school system.

Over the last four years, the school-based mental health program has served more than 1,100 students, spanning seven different schools in the Heart of Texas region. As a part of this program, students have access to two on-site mental health professionals. One of these professionals acts as a case manager, assisting students with primary needs and crisis management. The other acts as a counselor, assisting students with mental health needs and providing skills training.

The program is unique because it reduces barriers to access for students in need of mental health and case management services, without disrupting the school day. School-based services meet students where they are and makes the school environment — including collaboration from faculty and staff — a safer, more supportive one.

Critical to the success of this program has been the innovative use of telehealth. Telehealth has allowed for greater accessibility to psychiatric counseling for students, can be conducted via smartphone, allows parents to attend sessions, and has limited the amount of time students spend away from the classroom to receive these services.

Transition Age Youth (TAY)

The Transition Age Youth program stands as a resource pool for youth age 18-22 who have aged out of eligibility for social service benefits, the foster care system, and are transitioning into independent living as adults.

There is a widespread gap in services for persons in this age group, and OCOF’s TAY initiative seeks to fill that vacancy. This program provides supportive housing resources, education, job seeking assistance, mental health services, skills training, to help these youth feel more prepared for their next life stage.

Crisis Respite for Youth

The Youth Crisis Respite House has been described as the “crown jewel” of OCOF and is a non-sterile, home-like environment for teens with mental health needs.

Traditional solutions for youth experiencing mental health crises have included placement in psychiatric hospitals, juvenile detention centers, or being looped into the child protective services system. The stakeholders of OCOF presented an innovative perspective of youth mental health, and which has allowed youth to avoid being placed in an institution and provides holistic care.

The Youth Crisis Respite House provides a safe haven for youth who can benefit from a brief respite where they receive mental health services and collaboration with the families to ease back into their homes. Youth are allowed a three to four-day stay at the respite house free of charge within a trauma-informed care environment, crisis recovery planning, case management, individual and family counseling, group activities, community referrals and collaborations,and access to a nurse.

Since its opening in April 2019, Respite House has served 138 teens. With new funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Respite House will soon be able to increase the number of available beds to nine from six and reach more youth.

Respite House has some powerful stories that show the impact and importance of the work. One one occasion, Respite House took in two homeless teens and connected their father to a rental assistance program. Flex dollars from Respite were used to help the family stay together in a motel over the weekends while the house was closed. Accommodations were made for the father to have dinner with the teens every night, do laundry, and use the telephone as he needed. Transportation was secured through Cedar Crest and Waco ISD to help the teens continue to attend doctor’s appointments and school. Generous gifts from The Cove and Waco ISD made it possible for the teens to receive socks, underwear, and new clothing. As a result of assistance from Respite and other agencies the family was able to sign a lease on a new home.

Safety Net Program

The Safety Net program, based on positive youth development and trauma-informed care, provides services for runaway and homeless youth and their families. The overarching goal for each teen is to reunite them with their families or to find a safe alternative placement. Youth ages 13-18 are provided 21-day emergency shelter, food, clothing, counseling, recreation programs, and referrals for health care. Counseling services are also made available to families, and youth leaving Respite House are provided aftercare services.

What’s Next for OCOF?

The end of the Closing the Gaps grant only signifies the closing of one chapter for OCOF; the group is still pressing forward to continue to enhance services for Waco’s youth. On Sept. 1, OCOF began working on a new project titled, To Infinity and Beyond, which will focus on expanding needed mental health services to youth and adults in rural areas. The project will provide case managers for six counties in the Heart of Texas Region along with substance abuse services and transportation to get clients in rural areas to and from appointments.

Another emerging program is the Youth Homelessness Demonstration program (YHDP), made possible by HUD. This program will incorporate a drop-in center at MHMR for young adults age 18-22 where laundry, job application assistance, Internet access, and meals will be available. Young adults will also have access to case managers to provide support with obtaining affordable housing and other general needs. YHDP will also work in tandem with Respite House to assist with crisis management and shelter for those in need.

How You Can Join the Work

OCOF invites you to join them as they continue to serve the Heart of Texas through mental health services for youth and families. If you have a passion for serving youth and children, you may find that OCOF is a great way to plug in to work that is making a lasting difference.

OCOF has meetings every five weeks at 9 a.m. Fridays via Zoom. Attending a meeting provides an opportunity to connect with OCOF’s leaders and further collaboration and support the group.

You can always check out the website, ourcommunityourfuture.org/, to learn more about upcoming opportunities and ways you can help the group meet its goals.

Khristian Howard is a health intern with Prosper Waco.