On the heels of a $2.1 million grant rewarded by the Sherwood Foundation, a program to help students with mental health needs is set to begin hiring and moving forward.

With a target date of Nov. 1 to have the Panhandle Beginnings Day Treatment/Day School (DT/DS) on its feet, Educational Service Unit 13 Administrator Andrew Dick and ESU 13 Director of Behavioral and Mental Health Katherine Carrizales said they are looking for applicants to fill positions within the program, including special education instructors and an outreach consultant in addition to multiple other staff positions.

Panhandle Beginnings is designed specifically for students having mental health issues and challenges. For the student struggling with mental health or behavioral issues, it’s often difficult for a parent to navigate the best course of treatment. Carrizales said that’s where the program can provide help with establishing a course of treatment, a continuum of care, bringing in specialists as needed, while striving to keep the child in a setting geared to reintegrate within the school system.

In addition, ESU 13 is looking for a location to house the program in the Scottsbluff/Gering area. The ideal facility will have the capability of having classrooms, therapeutic space and a larger room where program participants can perform large motor movements or have recreation space. Dick said ESU 13 staff is looking at a short list of facilities based on cost of rent and potential costs for renovation to allow for the program needs as well as the safety and security of students and staff.

The $2.1 million grant will be dispersed over five years and will provide funding for the facility, initial startup and a portion of the initial operating expenses. The Oregon Trail Community Foundation is the fiscal agent for the project. The goal is to start with two classrooms or about 16 students with the intention of adding a third classroom within five years.

Dick said he is extremely grateful for efforts from Nebraska Sen. John Stinner in promoting the program, and the grant timing could not have been better as stock market numbers have taken a tumble due to the coronavirus pandemic. Stock market advances and declines can impact what foundations, such as the Sherwood Foundation, are able to give.

Carrizales said Panhandle Beginnings will focus on the students in the program with the therapeutic aspect of treatment woven throughout their day along with academics.

“The most important piece is the healing that can happen within this facility,” she said. “Then, the ability to continue to provide support as they reintegrate into their home school district. We have a goal of helping not just the youth within this program, but incorporating support for families and school staff, so we’re really hopeful that we can create a model where we’re able to provide education to families with the youth in the program and education to the schools who have youth in the program so that as they move back into their school districts they’ll have some added capacity to support the kind of mental health needs that these kids will have.”

Panhandle Beginnings will draw on examples from similar programs in Colorado. The nearest similar facility in Nebraska is more than 300 miles away, so the program developed through ESU 13 will be a pilot program to be replicated as other programs develop in the future.

“It’s certainly a feather in our cap,” Dick said. “It shows that we’re innovative, that we’re responding to our needs, that we have the needs of our youth in our area’s best interest at heart, that we don’t want to separate families.”

Carrizales said she is grateful to be able to help create a program that will not only help with the specific needs of the youth and families in the Panhandle, but other youth in Nebraska as well.

“There is a high level of accountability that is expected of us,” Dick said. “When you are fortunate to be the benefactors of a $2.1 million grant from the Sherwood Foundation, to develop and implement a program that can serve as a replica for other programs in the state as well as demonstrate to stakeholders that this is a program that should be funded in another method, yeah, I think that there is certainly a level of accountability.”

Dick said Jerry Beston from the Sherwood Foundation told him, “The real accountability is to the students who need this service the most.”

Those who choose to apply for positions on the staff will have to have a lot of patience and flexibility, Carrizales said. “It’s going to be a high-stress job, but extremely rewarding as well.”

“Something that we know in terms of accountability and pressure is, this program, as any program, is only going to be as good as the people working in it,” Dick said, “so we truly want the best candidates for the program.”

ESU 13 began advertising for applicants last week, and will be looking to fill all of the positions in the coming weeks. Those interested in working in the program can go to the ESU 13 home page at www.esu13.org and click on employment opportunities.

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Reporter

Mark McCarthy is a reporter with the Star-Herald and oversees the Gering Courier as editor. He can be reached at 308-632-9049 or via email at mark.mccarthy@starherald.com.

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