The Ottumwa Courier

October 9, 2012

On call for kids in crisis: Programs help kids through tough times

MARK NEWMAN
Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Parents may vaguely remember the pressures they dealt with as a child. An office at the middle school is devoted to helping kids cope.

“Kids do have stress,” said Tina Walker, a crisis intervention counselor assigned to Evans Middle School. “One thing they stress about is whatever their families stress about; they’re very intuitive.”

Walker runs the Potential Achievers Program as well as the All Stars Class. And while she has an office at Evans, she’s actually an employee of Southern Iowa Mental Health Center.

Walker, by establishing good relationships with students, is able to talk to them about their troubles.

When a child comes to school upset because a beloved pet died, Walker wants to help them — and get them to class. When drugs are involved, a problem that more often plagues older students she follows up on, resolution may take much longer.

“We’re very lucky at Evans. Some schools are doing away with a lot of their extra activities. They may drop music or orchestra or art. Well, art allows them to express that stress.”

Having band, football or science club helps young people either express themselves or burn off energy in a constructive way. So does teaching them about making good choices.

While half her hours are devoted to crisis counseling, Walker teaches the All Star Class, taken by nearly every seventh-grader at Evans, during her remaining hours.

Kids learn about being motivated to do the right thing, and they see the social norms demonstrated by successful students in leadership roles.

To get parents involved, homework requires discussion with “a trusted adult.” Questionnaires may broach subjects like drugs, sex or violence.

“Studies show more success when kids have a trusted adult in the [school] building [and] when parents have those conversations,” Walker said.

She said it is distressing to her when young people joke about drugs. In their hearts, she believes, most find drug use to be foolish. Worse, she said, one in seven kids will face an addiction problem at some point.

Last year, the grant for the class ran out. This year, the Iowa Regional Legacy Foundation donated more than $13,000 to keep it going.

“I got to sit in on one of the classes,” said Kelly Genners, the director of community leadership. “It’s amazing.”

She said the relationship Walker has with the students allows them to talk freely with her about some pretty difficult — but important — topics facing teens.

When you really listen, Walker said, you find that even young teens know more than you might think. And be more generous.

Part of the program encourages students to create a better community.

“To help others, not just look inward at themselves,” said Walker.

After a student received $150 in Christmas money, she donated $100 to the Food Bank of Southern Iowa, enough to buy more than 500 pounds of food for the needy.

“She didn’t do it to be noticed; she understood what a difference it could make,” Walker said. “There’s some really good kids here.”