KANSAS CITY, Kan. — When the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools district started bringing therapists into their schools every day, they noticed a dramatic increase in kids getting the mental health care they needed.
To take it a step further, the district opened up a "Care Clinic" after school to help even more students.
One of those students is Alondra, a fifth grader who recently graduated from the program.
Alondra, 10, knows exactly who she is.
"[I'm] funny," Alondra said describing her self. "This is hard because I have a lot of words, I just don't know which one to choose. [I'm] kind and beautiful."
For a 10-year-old, she's well-spoken, self-assured and has no problem talking about her feelings.
"I feel like it was like a goal that I have," she said.
The fact that she's this self-aware means she surpassed her goal, considering how she was feeling before.
"It's like, let's say a stuffed animal," Alondra explained. "I was feeling [like] I had too much stuff in my mind and I just like, wanted to come out to someone."
Thankfully, there was someone.
"I was nervous to like, talk to a different person, but I also felt excited for like, for all my stuffing to come out," Alondra said.
After school, she started seeing a social worker for therapy.
Social workers are already in the KCKPS on a daily, but the after-school sessions are a bonus, giving additional support to students and families.
"Across the nation and particularly in this area, there's just a lack of available providers," Angela Dunn, behavioral health coordinator for KCKPS, said. "There's wait lists at our community mental health centers and at community agencies we refer to. So, we still see the need but the need isn't necessarily being met."
Dunn started the clinic in the beginning of 2022. It runs on Tuesday and Thursday at 5 p.m. at Schlagle and Harmon high schools.
Any student in the district, pre-K through 12th grade, can come for free with their families for free.
"Whatever it takes to kind of get them regulated, get them working on some skills, so they're functioning better at school and at home," Dunn said.
The sessions typically last six to eight weeks and after that, the social worker can refer the student for continued therapy and services.
Students are dealing with anxiety, depression and feeling lonely.
"Most of the time I did," Alondra said. "And like, sometimes I would think I was a ghost, like I didn't exist in no one's mind."
Alondra told KSHB 41 News she's also dealing with the loss of her grandparents, which was extremely hard on her.
In her sessions, Alondra said they did a grief exercise where they were supposed to break a pot to demonstrate the ways you feel broken after you lose someone.
Instead, Alondra painted cracks on the pot with different colors, representing that although you're going through a tough time, you still have people who love you.
This is just one example of the different ways kids are able to work out their emotions in Care Clinic sessions.
School social worker Sara Richards, who worked with Alondra, says these feelings are starting to show up more at the elementary level.
"It's very easy just to say, 'Just be happy, just get over it.' You know, you broke your pencil," Richards said. "But there's a lot of factors that play into that and I think we need to start realizing that more, that kids feel big feelings, they just don't know how to cope with them yet."
Children's Mercy Hospital releases a community health needs assessment every three years, talking to 1,200 kids from five counties in the Kansas City area, including Wyandotte County.
Their findings mirror what the school district is seeing, telling us more kids are experiencing fair or poor mental health, from 6.9% in 2012 to 14.3% in 2021.
The assessment also found that kids experiencing poor mental health are more likely to live in Wyandotte County.
"I think there's a lot of barriers," Dunn said. "I think there's a stigma to mental health services and seeking help outside. I think there's transportation barriers, families can't physically get to outside appointments, insurance challenges and maybe documentation status worries."
While Dunn says anxiety and depression don't discriminate, kids in KCKPS live in an area with some of the worst health outcomes in the state across the board. These outcomes tie directly to socio-economic factors.
The median household income in Wyandotte County is $48,000, compared to the neighboring Johnson County, where the median household income is $92,000.
KCK's diversity is something the school district celebrates, however, communities of color are historically more likely to experience poverty and health inequities.
"Especially with COVID, I mean, these kids I think are impacted more than we think they are," Richards said.
As KSHB 41 News reported last May, more than a dozen students in KCK have been killed or overdosed in the last two years.
"There's a lot of stressors our kids have with community violence and things they're hearing and seeing," Dunn said.
But the Care Clinic is there to show families that it doesn't have to be this way.
The positive outcomes they're seeing show Dunn it's working.
"I don't know if it's rose-colored glasses, but I really believe if kids are well, if they're healthy, if they're emotionally well, if they're safe, they're going to be healthy and well adults," Dunn said. "And I do think it'll make a long-term impact."
It's for kids like Alondra, who are now better able to work through their emotions in class and at home.
"Honestly it was night and day," Richards said about working with Alondra. "She started off very down, just very somber. We were working through grief and then by the end of it, she was happy, laughing, smiling, which is what I go for, because that indicates to me we're in a good head space and we're just being a kid again."
It's showing them that what they're feeling is okay and they're not alone.
Alondra says she doesn't feel like a ghost anymore and quite the opposite now.
"I feel more like they actually care about me and stuff," Alondra said. "I feel loved. I feel like that's a good word to describe it."
The KCKPS will keep the Care Clinic open throughout the summer as-needed.