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A Few Hours a Week to Support Kids and Teens With Mental Illness

In 1994, Pillars Community Health launched a program to provide additional support to children and adolescents living with mental illness.

Photo of Young Teens Outside of Their SchoolIn 1994, Pillars Community Health launched a program to provide additional support to children and adolescents living with mental illness. Called Respite at the time, and today known as Community Support-Individual (CS-I), the program helps these young clients practice their therapeutic goals out in the community. The program is driven by Individual Support Providers (ISPs), paid mentors who take the children and teens to various places and activities in the community and find ways to address issues that have arisen in therapy.

Pillars Community Health also launched a CS-I program for adults in 2016, which is staffed by Pillars Community Health clinicians.

In the child and adolescent CS-I program, each ISP is assigned to a client based on shared interests, location, and experience, and most spend about 10 hours with the child each week—though the schedule is flexible based on the times that work best for both the ISP and the family. In FY2017, a total of 58 ISPs helped 87 clients in the program. Pillars Community Health is regularly seeking new community members to fill open ISP positions.

A Day in the Life

A typical visit for an ISP starts with a conversation with the parent to find out how the child is doing at home, how things are going at school, issues the parent would like the child to work on, and so forth. The ISP and client then make a plan for the day, which usually involves visits to a couple of places such as the library or a park.

“You can go have fun at the park, but you’re also working on building skills,” says Jessica Warchol, CS-I coordinator who worked as an ISP for six years before joining Pillars Community Health as a full-time staff member. “You might help them socialize by suggesting they invite other kids to play, or you might suggest they join a game of tag. Same thing if you go out to eat—you might help the child get out of their comfort zone by having them order their own food or interact with the employees.”

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In addition to one-on-one interactions, ISPs have a chance to bring their clients together at bimonthly group outings, such as the annual picnic, holiday party, craft night, laser tag, or volleyball. If two clients get along well, the ISPs might schedule future outings as a small group, to give the kids a chance to work on social skills together.

“It’s so rewarding,” Warchol says. “You become a constant presence, someone that child can turn to and confide in. You’re a role model for them. Some of these kids are feeling really lost or don’t have a lot of opportunities to just have fun. When we make a great connection between the child and the ISP, you really see what both of them gain from each other.”

Working as an ISP

In addition to having regular contact with the families, ISPs also maintain contact with their clients’ therapists and counselors to learn what areas might need more work and offer feedback to the therapists based on the real-life experiences.

“It’s part of our goal of creating a treatment team for the client,” says Don Bestwina, CS-I director who has been with the program since its inception. “It’s very beneficial for the therapist to know what goes on in the client’s life, outside of the one hour they get to spend with them each week.”

The combination of interaction with social workers and the flexible schedule often makes ISP work ideal for students working on advanced degrees in counseling, clinical psychology, marriage and family therapy, and social work, as it offers a chance to get a foot in the door and build their resumes.

However, Warchol says there are many skills and backgrounds that make certain workers a great fit for the program, including professionals from special education and law enforcement or those who have worked with children with developmental disabilities. A minimum of two years working with children or adolescents is a requirement.

“Special skills are also helpful,” she says. “We had one child who didn’t want to work with anybody unless they could teach him to play the guitar, and another kid who just wanted someone to throw the football around with him. One of our workers teaches mixed martial arts to the kids, and we have others interested in art. It’s important for us to have a variety of workers from many demographics and with different interests.”

If you are interested in becoming an ISP, view the opening on our Job Board. The program is especially seeking bilingual males to match to current clients, but all qualified applicants are welcome.

Click here to learn more about all of our Mental Health Services.

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