Waco is working to address our behavioral health needs

By Ferrell Foster


A lot of us in McLennan County are struggling with mental health and substance abuse — what is called behavioral health. It’s nothing new, but today we understand the specifics of the need here better than we did just two years ago.


Prosper Waco is wrapping up its leadership of data gathering for the Continuity of Care project launched by the McLennan County Behavioral Health Leadership Team and funded by the Episcopal Health Foundation. The BHLT includes some of our most illustrious leaders, starting with County Judge Felton Scott and Waco Mayor Dillon Meek. Those leaders saw the need and knew we needed to understand it better.

Zoom calls kept participants in the Continuity of Care project connected throughout the two-year effort. They met weekly to communicate challenges and other experiences they encountered at the five local behavioral health service providers.

We are now unpacking the data collected during this study, which involved Ascension Providence, Ascension DePaul Center, Baylor Scott & White-Hillcrest, Cenikor, Heart of Texas Region MHMR (now the HOT Behavioral Health Network), and Tarleton State University-Waco’s Social Work Department. Waco Family Medicine was involved in planning, as well.


You could call those healthcare entities competitors. They each need to generate the financial support that is required to operate and offer services. Still, they are each driven by a passion to provide care for us and for our neighboring counties — care enough to work together.


Tom Stanton presides over the Aug. 19, 2021, Zoom meeting of the Behavioral Health Leadership Team, with support from Jenny Howe Peel of the Rapoport Foundation.

The top leaders of those healthcare organizations work through the BHLT and the Prosper Waco Board of Directors to make this a better place to live. In many cases, an immediate subordinate to those CEOs planned what became the Continuity of Care project. And then a number of next level leaders executed the plan.


I was brought to Waco two years ago to coordinate the project, so I was able to work regularly with all of these leaders. What a group!


Tom Stanton and Tom Thomas co-chaired the BHLT and helped me get my feet on the ground. And now Daniel Thompson, executive director of HOT Behavioral Health Network has become co-chair along with Tom Stanton. These are such highly competent men, and they have a great level of compassion to match.


Names, names, so many names. People who did the work day in and out. You don’t collect information about the experiences of more than 1,200 clients without a lot of patient and considerate work — finding out how their treatment went and then checking back with them 30 and 180 days later.


It’s best to describe it as neighbors caring for each other in difficult times — anonymous neighbors. The CoC team of healthcare workers did the work, as they do every day, to help people they don't really know.


And speaking of difficult times, they did this project during a deadly pandemic that already has claimed more than 700 lives in our county. CoC team members were in close contact with patients during this study, but all of us stayed connected through weekly Zoom calls — 74 in all — at 2 p.m. each Monday.


Tom Stanton was on most of those calls with me. We heard the first-hand reports of the challenges being faced, both because of the specific behavioral health needs and due to the pandemic. We heard of the surges in substance abuse, of the lack of available beds to transfer people for long-term care, of the children and teens struggling, and the tiredness of workers. But no one ever seemed to despair. Healthcare workers are used to challenges and to being stretched in caring for others.


So I’ve discovered some of Waco’s best during this project — heroes I wish everyone in our community could know — Lauri Barnard, DeAnna Fitch, Sue Gleason, Jennifer Higginbotham, Pam Martin, Lisa Molkenbuhr, Amanda Solomon, Stacey Steger, Leah Stowe, and Jennifer Yepma.


And at the planning level — Vicky Campbell, Denise Coleman, Dr. Lance Kelley, Telawna Kirbie, Suzii Paynter March, Dr. James Morrison, Jenny Howe Peel, and Stacie Woodall.


And with Tarleton — Dr. Darla Beaty, Dana Bibus, Erica Castillo, Dr. Deneece Ferrales, Dr. Veronica Molina, Dr. Edward Randle, and Sammy Salazar.


And, of course, at Prosper Waco — Tiffany Gray, Telawna Kirbie, Suzii Paynter March, Jade Rumminger, Sammy Salazar, and Dr. Jeremy Rhodes, our very own sociology “professor” who got down into the data detail.


Please forgive me if I forgot someone. I know there must have been others working on this of which I was not even aware.


We will unpack the findings more in the future, but right now I just wanted to honor the people who made this happen. Waco’s best for the best Waco.

Ferrell Foster is senior specialist for care and communication with Prosper Waco.