Free Counseling Center Opens

Left to right- Betsey Weiss ( Board member), Bill Blout ( President), Elise Goplerud ( Youth Advisor) Tim Dugan ( Board Member) Sharon Stirling ( Staff Counselor), Conne Counts ( Treasurer) and Michele and Cooke ( Clerk) . Absent - Mary- Jane Donovan ( Legal Counsel and founding Board Member ) and Joan Robinson ( Board Member).

By Laurie Atwater  | A Safety Net for Teens in Crisis

Social safety nets are not taken too seriously until something “bad” happens.  For the past decade Lexington has struggled to find the appropriate mix of services to provide to the young adults in the community as well as the most effective structure for delivery.  As concern has mounted over student stress, student suicides and “risky behaviors” uncovered in the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted each year at high schools all over the country, communities have responded in different ways to the need for services.With cutbacks and struggling local economics, safety net services are usually the first thing to go. In Lexington it has taken many dedicated volunteers and activists to advocate for, and ensure, a fully-functioning human services department that serves all members of the community including youth and families.  The town has maintained its Youth Services Director—an important part of the team that works with law enforcement, the public schools and mental health professionals to help families access services and make useful connections.  And recently the community and the schools have responded to the issue of academic stress by forming The Collaborative to Reduce Student Stress to work with the schools, the faith communities and other organizations to address policies and programs that will help students deal with academic stress.

However, the most critical need has remained unmet until this March when the Lexington Youth and Family Services (LYFS) opened its doors at the First Parish Church in Lexington.  LYFS is a private, non-profit, after-school safety net for teens looking for an accepting place to express their problems and access counseling.  “We want to add another dimension to the existing services in town,” says LYFS board member Betsey Weiss.  “We are open after school when counseling services are not available at school or through the town,” she says.  Weiss also notes that counseling services at LYFS are free and do not require insurance.  That can be so important to a young person who wants to get help but does not want his or her parents to know or to someone whose problem is their parents.

So what kind of student would seek help in this kind of a setting?  “It could be a high achieving student who is depressed, but doesn’t want to worry parents,” LYFS President and volunteer therapist Bill Blout explains. “Or perhaps it is a more serious problem like suicidal thoughts or self-injury.”  According to the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey 50 students indicated that they had actually tried to commit suicide, and over 200 had thought about it. Over 300 students admitted to being depressed.  Clinicians know that this type of depression can escalate to other risky behaviors like substance abuse including excessive drinking and risky sexual behavior.  Board member Conne Counts says that so many kids “feel invisible” at the high school. “It’s good for them to have an outlet for their concerns,” she adds.

“This is not a drop-in center,” explains Bill Blout. “We are a crisis-intervention center open after school in an easy to get-to location. It’s a private counseling space.  “The location was very important to the success of the program because it needed to be within walking distance from the high school and close to public transportation.  When the First Parish offered the group what used to be the “bridal suite” they were so grateful and remains so.  The facility has a separate entrance which makes it perfect for this use. LYFS is not affiliated with any religion, but appreciates the powerful gesture that First Parish has made to support youth in the community.

Michele Cooke, board member and general clerk for the group has done an amazing job transforming the space into two warm and inviting rooms—a waiting room/office and a meeting room for clients and clinicians. It’s a “safe space” for kids to seek help for anything that is disturbing them. So far staff counselor Sharon Stirling sees lots of kids convincing their friends to come in because they are worried about them.  “We didn’t know what would happen when we opened the doors,”  Blout says. “I actually thought it would be a couple of months before we saw anyone.”  They’ve have had over 20 teens stop in to check it out!

LYFS Youth Advisory Board member Elise Goplerud has been spreading the work at LHS; she has been giving short talks in freshman health classes to introduce the service to students.  “We did a week on depression in the health classes,” she explains. “It was a perfect time for me to go in to each class and tell them about LYFS.”  Elise says she stresses the relaxed noncommittal environment and the fact that it’s free.

So far six Lexington therapists have volunteered their time to offer free counseling services.  This is an enormous advantage and something that the group agrees is very special about Lexington.  “This is a very busy time—after school—for therapists who see adolescents and teens,” explains Tim Dugan, a volunteer therapist and LYFS board member.  “This is when we see our patients so we are very grateful to our volunteers.”  Blout explains that they not only have six therapist signed up and ready to go, but the also have another six who are in the process of committing to the program.  “We have a great group of professionals in town who are ready to step up and give three or four hours a month,” says Betsey Weiss a seasoned Lexington activist and volunteer.Both

Bill Blout and Tim Dugan were involved a couple of years ago when the Lexington Human Services Department was being reorganized.  They have both worked extensively with at-risk teens.  Over time they became increasingly worried about the lack of a real safety net for young people who are troubled and could hurt themselves.  While they were happy that the Youth Services Director position at the town level was preserved, they knew that many of the most troubled teens would not seek help unless they could do it in an anonymous and non-threatening environment.

After the Youth Summit conducted by the town and the schools, they decided to collaborate on a non-profit counseling model.  It has been several years in the making. Many hours went in to formulating a mission statement, establishing clinical guidelines and setting up a legal framework.  Founding board member Mary-Jane Donovan who is an attorney donated her legal services to the effort.

Now they are very anxious to get up and running.“Too often towns wait until there is a crisis like a suicide,” Blout says. “Then they act. We wanted to get out ahead of the crisis and hopefully we can fill that gap in services in Lexington.”Currently the offices are open ever Friday from 3-6 and they will be open during the summer as well. Staff counselor Sharon Sterling is always in during these hours to see patients, do an assessment and make future appointments.  In the future the group hopes to expand those hours and offer additional services like support groups, peer leadership opportunities and a crisis hotline. Of course, because they are a nonprofit, they are relying on donations and they are applying for grants.

Join Us! The LYFS Open HouseSunday May 22nd, 1 to 3pmParker Hall, First Parish Church7 Harrington Road, Lexington, MA.There will be speakers, a power point, and a visit to the new LYFS office space.Please join us.For more information, email Bill Blout – bblout@LYFSinc.org781-862-0330As a non-profit, we are dependent on donations so we appreciate all contributions. Checks can be made out to: LYFS Inc., and send to 7 Harrington Rd, Lexington, MA 02420.  (781-862-0330)

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