07 Aug CAUSE & EFFECT: Books, Backpacks and Behavioral Health
Brace yourselves for the onslaught of back to school promotions. For those of you who grew up when school started after Labor Day the abundance of ads for all things classroom related might catch you off guard. But in this area we send kids back just about the time many families in other parts of the country are heading off on summer vacation.
If you are not faced with preparing a student for a new school year, you might not be giving this topic much consideration as you dodge displays of rulers, glue and three ring binders in your favorite box stores over the next week or two. But families supporting nearly 160,000 K-12 students in Southwest Florida might need your help.
Over the last ten years or so I have noticed philanthropy taking a much larger role in helping students launch into a new academic year. With continual decreases in school funding, parents have become increasingly more responsible for providing classroom supplies, extra-curricular activity equipment and in some cases uniforms for their kids. Not every family has the financial ability to outfit their children with the necessary items.
And this is where the community can and has stepped in with backpack drives, school supply fundraisers, and uniform exchanges. Over the past several weeks I have heard from nonprofit organizations that support such efforts seeking funds that can help with increased demand as the start of the school year peaks around the corner.
Many individual and corporate donors are quick to step up to provide basic supplies, musical instruments, uniforms, and shoes. To these generous people it is a gift they know will help a child get off to a better start.
They are right and the families and community are grateful and happy.
But research and educators will tell you that this is just the tip of the iceberg. A number of years ago in the throes of the recession I learned that kids were going hungry over the weekend because they didn’t have access to food outside of the free and reduced lunches and breakfasts provided at the school site.
Principals’ shared that parents were dumpster diving in trash cans behind the schools seeking food that had been disposed of at lunch and children were taking some of their Friday lunches home wrapped in napkins to share with the rest of the family. I was blown away with these revelations, but organizations like the Kiwanis, Community Cooperative, Harry Chapin Food Bank, United Way and the Junior League all stepped in to provide school based pantries, mobile food units and backpacks filled with emergency food. Much of that work continues today thanks to donors and nonprofit superstars who realize a kid needs solid nutrition every day to thrive in school. Our community saw a need and took action.
Recently I was just as shocked to learn the impact of behavioral health on a student’s ability to function at school. In newly released data collected by the Healthy Lee Coalition, behavioral health and mental health issues are one of the leading threats to children in Lee County and the impact is severe enough to impair how they function at home, school and the community. The National Center for Children in Poverty reports that well over half of children and youth experiencing mental health problems come from households living at or below the federal poverty level. This means the kids we are working so hard to provide food and basic school supplies are the most vulnerable to behavioral health concerns.
Additionally, we are facing a shortage of child and adolescent behavioral health providers in Southwest Florida and connecting families to these services is a huge challenge. School districts are working with clinicians and pediatricians to find ways to increase access to help for anxiety, depression, substance abuse and other behavioral health issues.
Community health advocates and organizations are rallying around the cause and designing solutions to meet the demands. Stacey Cook Hawk, President and CEO of SalusCare, whose mission is to provide exceptional and compassionate behavioral healthcare in Southwest Florida reports that with 2 child psychiatrists, 1 developmental psychiatrist, and case workers they are currently serving nearly 2,500 kids ages 5-18. But Stacey and other behavioral health leaders will tell you the need is greater than resources for our Southwest Florida children, and they need our help.
It was evident at last year’s Southwest Florida Wine & Food Festival when local philanthropists stepped up and raised over a million dollars from the auction floor to support mental health initiatives for children that the will is there to do more. My phone rings at least once a week these days with compassionate community members asking what they can do to help.
The data is in, the awareness is up and the will to make a difference seems to be at an all-time high which is a great formula to begin designing some solutions together.
Next year maybe the back to school drives will be books, backpacks, and behavioral health services.
If you are interested in taking part in this discussion please reach out to me at [email protected] or give me a call.
About the Southwest Florida Community Foundation
The Southwest Florida Community Foundation, founded in 1976, cultivates regional change for the common good through collective leadership, social innovation and philanthropy to address the evolving community needs in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. The Foundation partners with individuals, families and corporations who have created over 400 philanthropic funds. Thanks to them, last year the Foundation invested $5 million in grants and programs to the community. With assets of $111 million, the Community Foundation has provided more than $67 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves since inception. The Foundation is the backbone organization for the regional FutureMakers Coalition and Lee County’s Sustainability Plan. Based in Fort Myers, the Foundation has satellite offices located in Sanibel Island, LaBelle (Hendry County), and downtown Fort Myers. For more information, visit www.FloridaCommunity.com or call 239-274-5900.