Umatilla County next month will offer its school-based mental health program to every school district in the county.
Amy Ashton-Williams said the move comes with challenges.
Ashton-Williams is the director of Umatilla County Human Services. She wrote the application for the grant from Greater Oregon Behavioral Health Inc., which paid for last year’s launch of RISE — the Resilience, Inspirational, Success Education program — in Hermiston schools. She applied this year to expand the program county-wide, and the county received $700,000 to take on the task.
RISE’s inaugural iteration had a staff of three mental health associates. They worked in small-group sessions with Hermiston’s K-12 students to help them better cope with a range of emotional and life challenges, from de-escalating anger to learning new resiliency skills to making better social choices. Ashton-Williams said the RISE staff served more than 400 Hermiston students.
This school year, RISE swells to a supervisor and six mental health associates to run the sessions.
“I was impressed that every one that applied has a mental health background,” Ashton-Williams said.
While school starts early next week, the RISE corps have orientation Sept. 4. Ashton-Williams said the gap provides time for program staff to talk with school office workers, teachers and counselors and build relationships.
“You might have a great curriculum to share, but if you don’t have a great relationship with each school and have built trust, it doesn’t work,” she said.
B.J. Wilson, Hermiston School District’s director of special programs, said, “RISE worked exceedingly well for us.”
Hermiston schools wanted RISE to accomplish two tasks: decrease the number of student referrals for discipline and increase student attendance. Wilson said he didn’t have numbers, but RISE contributed to improvements in both areas. He said the program provided students with another adult they could trust and receive encouragement from.
“We felt those connections were a great benefit,” Wilson said. “Just the fact they had another adult connection at school really helped them want to attend.”
Ashton-Williams said those connections with the students and the schools came down to one vital principal: “Consistency — we show up every single day we’re supposed to show up and deliver the services we said we would deliver.”
But only Taylor Wilson remains on the RISE team from the first year. Katrina Bretsch left during the school year, and Ashton-Williams said she at times had to fill in. Roy Barron, Hermiston’s newest city councilor, lost his position with RISE in June due to routine tardiness, he said.
While schools can rely on substitute teachers to fill in, Ashton-Williams said, the county does not have that nor is there a bank of on-call mental health workers in Eastern Oregon.
Still, she said, RISE provides compensation that is commensurate with the education and background of its staff, and that incentive could help the small program avoid turnover. And the supervisor also can double as one of the RISE counselors in a pinch.
Wilson said losing RISE staff was nobody’s fault, but those changes affect the students. They make connections with people, he said, and then those people are not there. Still, he commended RISE for keeping its promises to be there for students.
Taking that promise to the far reaches of the county presents other hurdles.
Ashton-Williams said RISE is looking at the possibility of video services for some schools, such as Ukiah, which is an hour drive from Pendleton. And RISE is going to be flexible. Some schools may need RISE groups just once a week, she said, and others more, so the program will prioritize those needs.
Wilson also said he is confident in the county’s ability to deliver RISE to the other schools. Ashton-Williams sounded determined to make it so:
“We’re going to provide service to any student,” she said.