By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
In 1989, Mario Costantini and his wife Cathy opened the Holton Youth & Family Center, 510 E. Burleigh St. The center was meant to be an alternative option for youth living in the Harambe and Riverwest neighborhoods, which were entrenched in gang violence. The mission was to reduce crime and gang problems by giving young people a safe place to go.
Over the years, the center has striven to meet the community’s needs while remaining committed to its original mission to help youth. Recently, the Holton Youth & Family Center announced it was partnering with Christian Family Solutions to bring the latter’s STRONG program to children and families living in the surrounding neighborhoods.
STRONG, which stands for Successfully Treating and Reaching Our Next Generation, began in 2016. Christian Family Solutions created the program to address the mental health needs of children.
Most outpatient programs are 30 to 60 minutes a week, Dr. Ashley Schoof, the director of STRONG and Southeastern Wisconsin’s Christian Family Solutions clinical director, said, but STRONG is 15 hours a week. The children receive about two hours of individual therapy and have family therapy sessions on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.
Currently, STRONG is offered at the North Campus of St. Marcus School, 2669 N. Richards St., and can serve about 30 children, however once it moves to its new location, it will be able to serve 50 to 60 children.
“These neighborhoods have an increased need for treatment to transform the community,” Schoof said. “It will allow us to reach more kids and there will be a ripple effect.”
The treatment isn’t just for children, it is for families, she said.
Costantini, who is now the chair of the Holton Youth & Family Center board of directors, said there was a need for mental health services, especially in the inner city. Most of the problems are related to the youth and their experiences, he said, and it’s easier to help them when they’re young.
“We’re in the prevention business,” Costantini said. “It’s difficult to say how many lives we’ve saved – it’s a hard thing to measure.”
The community can see the benefits of youth programming, but it is hard to quantify, he said, adding that he’s glad Christian Family Solutions wants to help young people.
Treatment is beneficial at an early age, Costantini said.
Family or professionals can refer children to STRONG. Depending on availability, children will either be assigned to the morning session or the afternoon session. At the beginning of each session, children will work their counselors to set goals for the day such as working on their coping skills. For the remaining time, children will do group and individual treatment that focus on their social and emotional skills.
Schoof understands there is a mental health stigma and works with parents to create a base level of trust and communication. She makes sure to connect with parents and guardians so that she knows what the struggles are and so that families know how treatment can help.
She often stresses to her counselors and therapists the importance of helping these children.
“These kids they are treating today will be the leaders of tomorrow, so treat them like the leaders of tomorrow,” she said.
At the start of the pandemic, STRONG pivoted to virtual treatment, but since June, the program has opened back up and is offering in-person sessions. As an essential service, Schoof doesn’t anticipate closing again.
STRONG has noticed an increase in anxiety in children around the ages of 7, 8 and 9, while older children are more prone to suicidal feelings. Many of the children are forgetting social norms because they’re doing virtual school, she added. Children need predictability and structure, Schoof said.
While its current space has limited the number of children in group therapy, the new location will allow STRONG to accommodate more children and still maintain social distancing. Schoof said she’s hoping to add summer camps, parent groups and more.
“The possibilities are endless,” she said.
It’s too soon to tell how long the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on people’s mental health will last, Schoof said, but what she does know is that the sooner someone receives treatment the less impact it will have on them during their lifetime.
Christian Family Solutions will move into the Holton Youth & Family Center on Monday, Dec. 21. Virtual services will be offered between Christmas and New Years and in-person treatment will resume on Monday, Jan. 4.
For more information on Christian Family Solutions and the STRONG program, go to christianfamilysolutions.org.