I Am More program

Kristen Fargason, a social worker for Family Links with items of the "I Am More" program at Pleasant Valley Elementary School that are used for her to interact with school aged children to help with whatever issues that they may have. (Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star)

 

Kristen Fargason wants the children she treats to know there’s more to them than they think.

“They are more than their past, more than the diagnosis they’re given and are more than worthy of love,” Fargason said.

Since the start of the school year in the fall, Fargason, a social worker, has provided mental health services to some troubled students at two Calhoun County elementary schools. Her work is part of a pilot program called I Am More, funded by United Way of East Central Alabama. The nonprofit hopes to grow and offer the program at more area schools to meet child mental health needs that are underserved in the state, some experts say.

“We’re trying to improve the situation for these students and their school life,” said Shannon Jenkins, United Way’s president and CEO. “We’re trying to decrease juvenile crime and substance abuse.”

Jenkins said United Way committed $80,000 to fund the pilot program for two years. United Way partnered with Family Links, an Anniston nonprofit, which hired Fargason and oversees her work. Wellborn Elementary and Pleasant Valley Elementary were the two schools chosen for the program.

“We knew, based on talking with the guidance counselor at Wellborn, that there was definitely a high need there,” Jenkins said. “And Pleasant Valley, we knew there was a need because it’s rural and transportation into Anniston for counseling and therapy are not always possible.”

The schools’ guidance counselors refer students to Fargason. Some of the students have exhibited behavioral issues and are dealing with problems ranging from broken families to seeing the death of a loved one.

Currently, Fargason has seven students in her caseload, but she can handle up to 14 students at one time. Fargason said one student has already seen enough improvement to graduate from the program.

Fargason said she visits the students at their schools weekly.

“We’ll play a game or do an activity that we’re able to do together for whatever issue or concern they may be going through at the time,” Fargason said. “Our goal is for the child to be successful in all aspects of their lives, not just academics.”

Fargason said she also routinely visits the children’s families.

“We ask them what goals they want their children to meet,” Fargason said. “We really work with the parents since they’re experts in their own lives.”

According to Mental Health America, a national nonprofit that promotes mental health for all Americans, there is a great need for such services, particularly in Alabama.

“Overall, in general there is a growing trend of higher rates of depression and anxiety and of suicides across the country,” said Theresa Nguyen, vice president of policy and programs at MHA. “We have been following what the data has said for quite some time.”

A recent MHA report, which compiles 2015 federal data, the latest available, shows Alabama ranks 48th among the states for access to mental health care services. Also, 11.5 percent of children in Alabama had private insurance that did not cover mental or emotional problems — higher than the national average of 7.7 percent, the report shows.

“Alabama is doing relatively better than other states in the level of depression seen among youths ... it’s 11 percent, which is around the national average,” Nguyen said. “But they’re not getting that access to care.”

Rhonda Duncan, counselor at Pleasant Valley, said her students in the program are doing well so far and that she recently referred two new ones to Fargason.

“I have one student that has graduated through the program ... it’s made a huge impact on him,” Duncan said. “I can see this program being beneficial everywhere.”

Jenkins said United Way’s ultimate goal is to expand the program to other schools.

“Our hope is that, based on data and results, that we’ll be collaborating with other community partners to get large grants,” Jenkins said. “We want it to stick and really want it to change lives.”

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.