CHAC sees recession's toll from the frontlines

Army of counselors works with troubled kids in local schools

An army of counselors on 30 school campuses in the Mountain View and Los Altos area say they are seeing higher rates of divorce, domestic violence, bullying, homeless youth and kids who are withdrawing into a world of video games and the Internet.

In an interview Monday, Monique Kane, director of the Community Health Awareness Council, and two staff members described the various ways the recession has hurt the community, according to reports from the dozens of school counselors CHAC employs.

Stewart Kiritiz, CHAC's chief psychologist and director of training, said he's noticed more kids are turning to video games as a way to avoid dealing with increasingly difficult social situations. Some play video games for six to 12 hours a day. Kids with attention deficit disorder can find it very seductive, he said, because it's an environment they feel they can control.

"Parents don't realize that can do damage to kids," Kiritiz said. "Every hour you spend on the computer is one hour less you are spending with your peers or on hobbies." As kids isolate themselves, they lose out on developing social skills and "social anxiety increases."

Another new problem school counselors are dealing with is "cyber bullying." With the help of the Internet and sites including Facebook, bullying is no longer something that only happens to the unpopular kids. It is also happening to those at the top of the social hierarchy, Kane said. And with domestic violence on the rise, "it's usually because of the bullying that's going on at home."

CHAC counselors have come to know that there are growing numbers of kids in local schools that are homeless, living in cars with their parents. CHAC has helped some with new school supples and trips to Kohl's for new clothes.

The problems aren't always economic. CHAC's counselors recently counseled a child who was having meltdowns in class because his father was dying of cancer, Kane said.

And counselors have noticed more kids in the area are smoking marijuana. Some use it to "self medicate" in response to stress, Kane said, and some have started in response to peer pressure.

Trying to help young people deal with these sorts of problems usually involves developing their own identity that they feel good about. That way they aren't "swept up by circumstance," said development director Paul Schutz.

A growing organization

As social stress weighs heavily on the city's families during the recession, CHAC's services are in high demand. Parents who would have paid a private therapist before are now looking to CHAC for more affordable services, Kane said.

CHAC's affordability comes from its army of college interns that do the bulk of the counseling. CHAC has 80 student interns this year, up from 60-70 previously. They are training towards their therapy licenses or doctoral degrees. And the intern positions are highly sought after. Kiritz said he had over 140 applications for 16 slots for his doctoral training program this year.

All the activity has CHAC outgrowing its small building at 711 Church Street, where it provides walk-in counseling to anyone, with fees on a sliding scale. Sometime over the next few years CHAC will soon be moving into a larger building in a property swap. A developer wants to use the property in a project that will redevelop much of the block, which sits along Castro Street.

Just a few blocks away, CHAC is set to begin offering expanded services for parents of young children. A space at Trinity United Methodist Church at Hope and Mercy streets will be renovated and opened up by CHAC in partnership with First Five Santa Clara County as the "Parent Place."

CHAC's school counseling may also be expanding soon as well, as Sunnyvale has signed CHAC on to provide counseling at three of its school sites this year and may contract with CHAC for all of its schools in the future, Schutz said.

While many non-profits are losing money during the recession, CHAC has been able to grow its revenues slightly over the last three years from $2.36 million to $2.69 million this year. Kane believes that is because the community has come to value the services CHAC has provided since 1973.

The number of people served by CHAC has more than doubled since 2008, with 7,752 served last year. That's partly because of a new program for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth in local schools that served 3,951 students last year. And a new partnership with the police department that counsels families of at-risk youth using a "best practices" counseling model served 114 last year.

Contributions to the Voice's Holiday Fund will help CHAC further expand its services to help even more families and individuals through tough times.


Like this comment
Posted by BV333
a resident of another community
on Dec 4, 2010 at 10:21 am

I'd like to point out that the majority of the interns are working for free to gain experience, not just while in school, but for 3-6 years after they graduate to meet the requirements for licensure. Despite this hardship on interns who sometimes work 2 jobs to support themselves while doing intern work, the counselors show an extraordinary capacity for caring, compassion, and belief in our community. A big thanks to all the CHAC counselors & Staff.

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