“Champions Corner” is a new blog series from the Texas System of Care that highlights the incredible work our sites, various government agencies, and other communities are doing towards implementing system of care values.
This month, we sat down with Anne Halsey, the chair of the City of San Marcos’ Commission on Children and Youth and San Marcos CISD school board member, to discuss the work the City of San Marcos is doing to elevate youth voice in conversations about behavioral health.
Let’s start with the Commission on Children and Youth that you chair. When did that start in San Marcos and what does it hope to accomplish?
Anne Halsey: The City’s Commission is the result of work that started more than ten years ago when Texas State University, San Marcos CISD, Hays County, and the City of San Marcos came together to find ways to improve postsecondary outcomes in our community. The group came up with a variety of recommendations, one of which was to put together a “Youth Master Plan.” That initiative included dialogues with youth and families about what the community needed in order to generate better economic outcomes.
The Youth Master Plan — along with the other recommendations — coalesced in the formation of the Commission, which is made up of individuals from a variety of organizations, including service providers and nonprofits, and representatives from governmental agencies, schools, and the youth. We have also started another Commission that is designed to be all youth-led and youth-driven. It’s a board of teenagers from across the community that meet and work to implement programs, as well as give feedback and recommendations on policy matters.
What would you say is the main focus of your Commission? What are you working on right now?
A.H.: When I took over as the chair of the Commission on Children and Youth about two years ago, there were two major things that we had yet to fully bring into fruition and those were programming initiatives around community mentoring and around mental health.
We were doing a lot of reflection and assessment about the best way to fill those gaps and we came up with a couple of program ideas specifically around mental health. We thought, “Okay, here are a couple of things we could pilot.” We took those ideas to our youth board and they said, “No thanks.” They already had access to similar programs or didn’t feel the need to expand.
So we went back to the drawing board and thought, “Maybe we need to open up to some more voices” and so we put out this call to bring people together to discuss solutions to filling those gaps in our local mental health infrastructure. We figured that at a minimum, getting everyone in the same room was beneficial.
I was hoping that maybe 20 people would show up. We had over 60 people at the first meeting. It really shows that people are invested and responsive, but it also shows the need we have in this community. Now, over a year later, we have created a network of people to better share resources and develop new ideas.
It sounds like San Marcos really values youth voice as an essential part of figuring out how best to help the community.
A.H.: It was a critical recommendation from the Youth Master Plan to have a body of youth providing insights and feedback and direction. They have been great about being really honest and frank. I think we, as adults, can sometimes get wrapped up in believing what is in the news or what we see in reports or data. Sometimes the youth board echoes that, but sometimes they don’t.
It was a critical recommendation from the Youth Master Plan to have a body of youth providing insights and feedback and direction. They have been great about being really honest and frank. I think we, as adults, can sometimes get wrapped up in believing what is in the news or what we see in reports or data. Sometimes the youth board echoes that, but sometimes they don’t.Anne Halsey, City of San Marcos’ Commission on Children and Youth and San Marcos CISD school board member
Sometimes they’ll say, “You know what? I’m stressed about taking the SAT. If we just had donuts or something the morning before the SAT, it would feel so much better.” Which is not to make light of the issues we’re dealing with, but sometimes the answers are simple.
It’s also not easy finding kids for the youth board. We want a certain number of representatives from each school, and then we have some at-large spots. But we want to make sure kids’ voices are being heard. We’re working towards a more systemic process of bringing kids in and working with them to develop their leadership skills. But so far, despite some struggles, we’ve had a lot of success.
For example, last year the youth put on a Youth Conference. They designed it, developed the topics, brought in media. And there were over 80 students that came from all over Central Texas to San Marcos. The youth board completely designed the agenda. They coordinated with the speakers they wanted. It was great.
That’s amazing! So what are some of your plans for improving the Commission’s approach? What are some of the roadblocks you’ve run into so far?
A.H.: Well, it turned out it was much harder to get data on local issues than I thought. We are now doing a youth behavioral survey in our public high school for the first time in as long as anybody can remember, which will really help us going forward. Also, shortly after embarking on the Mental Health Coalition, we got a critical call from the Texas System of Care in the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health basically saying, “We’ve got you. We work with a number of similar coalitions and can help you develop this and get you these resources. We can help validate the efforts you’re making.”
That was an incredible boost. Suddenly, we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. At the urging of the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health, we applied for a community grant through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) last spring even though we had just gotten off the ground. We didn’t get the SAMHSA grant, but it was a really good learning experience and helped us develop a map of what we would like to see happen here in the future.
It’s hard because everyone that has been involved in this work so far is doing it on top of the jobs they already have. We are hoping to bring in a paid Youth Services Director to coordinate between the various entities and lead the initiative soon.
But we have come so far in such a short time. It’s exciting! We have great momentum. We have a mission statement, we’ve got all of these people and partners that have bought-in. We have institutions ready to do something. We’re working on getting better data. And now we’re ready to take it to the next level and make some very positive changes in the lives of the young people in our community.
Did you miss the first installment in our Champions’ Corner series? Catch up on the origins of the system of care in Texas by clicking here.