Six local nonprofits that specialize in therapy and counseling are piloting a mental health wellness program at the South San Antonio Independent School District.
On Friday the South San community celebrated the opening of a building at Athens Elementary where students, parents and staff can access the agencies’ services free of charge.
The mental health center, called the South San Care Zone, is a dream four years in the making for a group of South San high school students.
It makes grief counseling, child psychiatry, addiction support and family therapy accessible to the South San community, and eliminates the need for long bus rides to appointments on the other side of town.
“Today is a day to celebrate a first step in ensuring equitable resources and mental health services for members of our community,” said recent South San graduate Melivia Mujica during the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the building’s opening.
“This is not about doing something nice for students. It is about justice,” Mujica said. “It is about saying that our lives are important and that we deserve the best resources our district and our city has to offer. And nothing less will do.”
Mujica is one of several students that waited for hours at school board meetings last semester to ask the board to support the opening of a community center at one of it’s closed schools that could house mental health services. The board said no, opting instead to reopen the school.
“We lost hope for awhile after… the big ‘No’ at the school board meeting,” said Madisyn Donovan, a senior at South San and the current president of the student enrichment club that began advocating for mental health services four years ago.
“I didn’t think this day would actually come. It’s kind of surreal,” she said.
Local news reports of the students’ calls for increased access to mental health services inspired the six nonprofits to launch the pilot program at South San.
Talli Dolge, CEO of Jewish Family Service, said the articles were a “catalyst” for the agencies involved in the pilot: Communities In Schools, Family Services Association, Rise Recovery, Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas, Clarity and Jewish Family Service.
“We didn’t expect to have a school district actually for another year, but with South San’s needs and the outcry of the students at South San ISD we decided to first of all bring the services and create the pilot as we go along,” Dolge said. “It was sort of like a marriage of two wonderful ideas from the school district and from our own collaborative.”
Dolge, who is coordinating the pilot, said each agency in the collaborative is supporting the salary of one staff member working at the South San center.
“We are providing the resources for the first year, but we are also looking for additional funding in order to sustain this year,” Dolge said.
Since the district sent letters home to parents announcing the pilot program earlier in the semester, Dolge said they’ve seen more requests for services than they expected.
They received more than 15 requests on Wednesday alone.
“We have to expand our services,” Dolge said. “And if we have to expand our services, we need more money as well.”
Dolge also said the collaborative has heard from several districts interested in working with the agencies to open their own mental wellness centers.
South San’s mental health and behavioral specialist, Susan Arciniega, said the pilot program enables students to receive services immediately, instead of waiting four to six weeks to be seen at a place that accepts their insurance or offers reduced rates.
“A lot of our families, there may be issues of transportation… and there are very limited services in our area,” Arciniega said.
If students had an appointment before, Arciniega said they often missed a full day of school, but now they’re able to return to class quickly or wait until after school for therapy. The center is open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday.
The students in the enrichment club credit Arciniega with inspiring them to advocate for increased mental health resources. They’re club sponsor, Spanish teacher Arabella Daniels, invited Arciniega to speak to them a year ago.
“You have made me into a person today where I know that I have power in this world, and I know that my words and my voice — they matter,” South San senior Nathaniel Soto told Arciniega during the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
But Arciniega said all of the credit goes to the students.
“It was always in them. Everything that they’ve done and they’ve become is because it was already in there,” Arciniega said. “(I) just kind of helped it grow a little. Watered it a little bit.”