Donation sparks program that helps students get counseling

Cherry Creek Elementary at-risk social worker Bobby Rickstad and Four Health counselor Jenifer Muzer

As a middle school counselor, Katie Erickson knows what a challenge it can be for students who are struggling with family issues, grief, depression, or any number of things that can affect their learning.

“It’s tough when we meet with kids we know need more time and attention than we are able to give,” Erickson said. “Those issues don’t go away when the last bell rings and they get back on the buses.”

Since last spring, a donation from a district parent has kick-started a wider program aimed at getting students the extra time they need with a therapist. And much of that happens right at school.

“It’s been a lifesaver; it really has,” Erickson said.

“I always really look forward to Wednesdays,” said one Lowell Middle student who has been seeing a therapist. “I feel happier and like I got a big weight off my chest when I talk to her.”

Lowell Middle School counselor Katie Erickson

From a Single Donation

The origins of the program are bittersweet.

Last school year, local Realtor and district parent Brooke Slocum made a $5,000 donation in honor of her mother, who was killed in a car accident. Slocum’s daughter witnessed the aftermath on her way to school.

Though she said her daughter’s principal and teacher were “wonderful” in helping process the tragedy, Slocum, a 1996 Lowell High School graduate, wished there were other resources.

“If my children didn’t have someone to speak to over a tragedy that was so well-known in our community, what about the children who are facing issues that no one may know about?” Slocum said. “This made my heart hurt.”

Addressing students’ mental health needs had been a priority of school leaders, and was affirmed via a youth mental health survey conducted by Lowell Community Wellness.

The program’s name, “Bridging the Gap,” comes from the decision to use the funds to help families pay for amounts not covered by insurance.

SInce last spring, three therapists from Saranac’s Four Health Family Resource Center, Inc., a 15-year-old nonprofit counseling and education center, visit the schools to meet with students. Through a $10,000 Healthy Families grant from Amway, the center has been able to continue the work started by the donation.

Removing Barriers

Executive Director Jenifer Muzer said there have been about 60 referrals made so far, and currently some 50 students district-wide are getting support from Four Health, for 15 minutes to an hour. Most visits are worked into students’ school day. Four Health also has an office at Flat River Outreach Ministries.

“It removes a lot of barriers,” said Cherry Creek Principal Shelli Otten. “I’ve worked in education a long time, and this is a high level of service for kids.”

Bobby Rickstad, at-risk social worker at Cherry Creek, said he has had requests from parents who wanted to look into counseling for their children but couldn’t afford it.

“They really are surprised that there’s a service such as this,” he said. “We’re fortunate to have this program, and we lean on it a lot.”

Funding is likely to last through the summer, so the district and Four Health are working to establish a way to continue the program beyond that.

“At this point we’re looking for other sources to help,” Muzer said.

Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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