Originally Published The Nugget News May 10, 2016
Author Erin Borla

There are a variety of things that affect even the youngest Sisters residents, things that have a direct impact upon their mental and emotional health. Even through budget constraints the Sisters School District has creatively patched its way through to ensure the mental-health needs of the students are met.

Students at all three schools and their families have the opportunity to connect with either District employees or contractors with varying concerns on an as-needed, weekly or even daily basis.

District providers are available to share tools for handling stress in a positive way and getting along with others. Some experiences, like learning how to develop and handle friendships, peer pressure, keeping calm inschool and even finding their own sense of humor (without overdoing it), are things the students can work through utilizing those tools.

Other students may require more in-depth support. Some are struggling with trauma, depression, feeling unmotivated, anxious or lonely. Some have suicidal thoughts.

“I believe all kiddos could use some extra support atschool,” says Tori Farr, a private contractor working with both elementary and middle school students through the Sisters schools. School can be a tough time and it’s important to help kids navigate friendships and academics.”

Each school has five-day-a-week support through several contractors. While, there is no certified schoolcounselor employed by the District at either the middle or elementary school, there are mental health professionals. Currently all are funded through grants. There is also additional support, although not financial, from the School Based Health Center and Deschutes County Mental Health.

Working with so many moving parts in the counseling department makes it challenging to have an effective communication strategy for the administration at eachschool and across the District. While the current dynamic is not ideal – it has enabled the students to be cared for.

Approximately 30 percent of the student population atSisters Elementary School has seen one of the three mental-health professionals this year – Jennifer Noble, Wendy Vernon, and Tori Farr. Not all of those students are working through long-term issues.

“There are big Ts and little Ts (traumas),” says Jennifer Noble. “Not every child that comes in and talks with me has large traumatic events or needs long-term mental health support. Some have had a rough time because their dog just passed away. Others may be having trouble adjusting to a new school or trouble making friends, the ‘little Ts’. But, if the little Ts pile up, they create a bigger issue.”

Students can be referred to services from a teacher or administrator who may notice a change in the child’s behavior. Parents can also make an appointment for their own child.

“My first call is always to the parents or guardians,” says Noble. “Just to share with them their student may be having some trouble. We are here for the students. Hopefully, if there is an issue at home, the family can help shine some light on that prior to talking with the student.”

As students get older and transition into the middle and high school they are beginning to create their own identity, often pushing their boundaries away from their family.

“You throw in hormones and changes in the brain, suddenly small things can seem like big things,” says Brook Jackson, the mental- health contractor at Sisters Middle School.

Sometimes that transition can be as difficult for parents as it is for the student.

“We start every school year telling the students that middle school can be really hard,” says Jackson. “Struggles are normal. It’s okay to be uncomfortable and face challenges. It’s okay to fail. We don’t like to call it failing – but rather learning what not to do.”

Charlie Kanzig, the only certified school counselor employed by the Sisters School District, is housed atSisters High School (SHS).

“I became a school counselor because I didn’t have additional support (from the guidance counselor) in highschool,” says Kanzig. “We are working on both education issues and mental- health issues.”

Even though Kanzig is the only counselor at the high school level, he believes there are teachers and other staff that support the students throughout their time at SHS.

Both the school nurse and the health teacher provide lessons on suicide, depression, self-harm and stress management. With the help of the ASPIRE coordinator and the program’s volunteer mentors, as well as Theresa Wadden, a private college counselor, who serves as the school’s college specialist, post-graduation support is well-managed.

“It’s difficult to slip through the cracks,” Kanzig says.