Every afternoon, scores of local children in grades K-8 attend an afterschool program known as JaxPAL, run by the Police Athletic League in four locations near many of our poorest and highest crime neighborhoods. These students receive academic support, enrichment activities, and a safe structured environment from 2:30-6:30 p.m.
And this year, they’re getting something more: access to a mental health counselor.
A pilot program through the Delores Barr Weaver Fund at The Community Foundation placed a mental health counselor on-site at the Northside JaxPAL center in January 2016. It was inspired by the successful Full Service Schools Plus model, which placed a licensed mental health counselor in every school in the Ribault High School feeder pattern. Kimberly Mote was hired through Daniel Kids to conduct 1-on-1 mental health sessions with the JaxPal students, hold regular character building activities in age appropriate groups, and host quarterly meetings for parents. She’s also a resource for the JaxPAL educators on site. But mostly, she’s a welcome presence for students, many of whom are coping with serious challenges at home and school.
“The difference that Ms. Mote has made is amazing,” said Lt. Lakesha Burton, JaxPAL’s executive director who oversees all the JaxPAL sites. “It’s clear that something at Northside has changed—it’s much calmer now, and our teachers have more time to focus.”
Having a mental health counselor on-site has broken down barriers to get help. One reason? Ms. Mote is a familiar face to students—her friendly, welcoming room with an open door policy is just off the front entrance to JaxPAL. The JaxPAL teachers have more confidence referring a student to for help, rather than writing up a disciplinary report. And parents have expressed that seeing Ms. Mote in a familiar place made them and their children more open to asking for and receiving help.
JaxPAL Northside Education Director Mary Bishop has seen firsthand the change that happens. She notes a young woman whose unacceptable behavior and bad attitude were about to get her removed from JaxPAL. Working with Ms. Mote for several months, the young woman is now helping out in the school and at home—a complete turnaround.
“This is a labor of love, but it’s not easy,” says Mote of helping these kids who often deal with some of life’s most difficult challenges—violence, abuse, absent parents. “But I see them learning—now, when they show up in my office because of a mistake, they tell me ‘Ms. Mote, this is what I did, but I know this is what I should have done.’ To me, that’s progress.”
For the 2017-2018 school year, the Youth Crisis Center (YCC) has funded additional mental health counselors at the three other JaxPAL sites through a federal grant. This is the first PAL in the nation to offer mental health services for its participants.