The ribbon cutting ceremony for South San ISD's Care Zone Wellness Center took place in 2019.
The ribbon cutting ceremony for South San ISD's Care Zone Wellness Center took place in 2019. Credit: Stephanie Marquez for the San Antonio Report

When the Care Zone opened in a building on the campus of Athens Elementary School, the mental health service collaborative’s leaders estimated it would serve 150 to 200 students, parents, and teachers in its first year.

Less than a year later, the mental health collaborative, comprised of Communities in SchoolsFamily Services AssociationRise RecoveryChildren’s Bereavement Center of South TexasJewish Family Service San Antonio, and Clarity Child Guidance Center, greatly exceeded expectations.

“In the first year at South San, we saw over 1,500 people, which is just monumental and crazy with the amount of services that we were providing,” said Talli Goldman-Dolge, CEO of Jewish Family Services, the lead agency in the collaborative. “We were astonished, but at the same time we thought that need was so incredibly intense, especially in an area that had never had mental health services before.”

Now the San Antonio Mobile Mental Wellness Collaborative is preparing to expand into nearby Edgewood and Harlandale ISDs, two districts also in great need of additional resources, Goldman-Dolge said.

The offerings and priorities will look slightly different based on the new districts’ already existing infrastructure. Whereas South San only employed one social worker to serve the entire district, Harlandale employs 15 social workers. This allows the collaborative to incorporate existing resources and focus on Harlandale’s request for services surrounding drug and alcohol abuse.

Each of the districts the collaborative works with will build out their own requested services, Goldman-Dolge said.

“We are building what the community is seeing,” she added. “It can change throughout the year, and that’s what we have learned and we’ve really adapted. During COVID at South San, we were able to move very quickly with the help of some wonderful funders, to make sure that all of our clients, all of our students were getting the same care that they got when the Care Zone was open.”

In Edgewood, the partnership will complement existing services, Cynthia Treviño, Edgewood ISD’s chief of human resources and student support services, told her district’s trustees at a meeting Tuesday night. Many of the agencies already work with EISD students. But the existing partnerships only allow for referrals, and students must travel to the agencies.

Under the new partnership with the collaborative, students will be able to see collaborative staff on district property at the Emma Frey facility. It will also allow EISD to treat students preventively instead of reactively, Trevino said.

New funding is helping the collaborative expand into EISD and Harlandale. On Monday, Bexar County and Spurs Give announced a joint $135,000 donation to expand its efforts. This funding supplements other federal and local grants, donations, and contributions from the participating school districts to support the services offered.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and the implications of social distancing and the economic recession have negatively affected many people’s mental health and created new barriers to treatment,” Bexar County Commissioner Justin Rodriguez said in a statement. “This important investment will provide accessible and affordable services and support to children and families in serious need.”

The Care Zone opened in South San ISD last November after students at the district’s high school advocated for greater resources to support their mental health. They attended school board meetings and told trustees of their personal struggles with mental illness.

Students asked the district to invest in more social workers and counselors. At the time, the district only employed one social worker and behavior specialist, Susan Arciniega.

“I need more help. I need more staff. We’re not here 365 days, and that concerns me,” Arciniega said at an April 2019 board meeting. “We are not at a preventative stage. We are at an intervention, crisis stage.”

Six months after this meeting, the Care Zone opened with the support of the six community agencies.

The collaborative receives calls from districts around Bexar County and throughout the state with questions on how to replicate the service model, Goldman-Dolge said. While the collaborative doesn’t have the funding to expand that far or that quickly, they are hoping to ramp up their offerings even further.

“When we developed the mobile mental wellness collaborative, I wanted it to be able to go to outskirt communities [that] don’t have any mental health care,” Goldman-Dolge said. “That’s my next step for the outlying counties to have access because they are in such dire need right now.”

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.