Pinelands Regional’s School Based Youth Services Staff Kept Busy

Hundreds of Students Seek Counseling; Programs Galore Available
Aug 24, 2016
Photo by: Rick Mellerup Karen Kenney, Director of Pinelands Youth Services.

Being a tweener or a teenager isn’t easy. You’re dealing with puberty. You’re trying to find yourself while, at the same time, trying to fit in with the crowd. Later on you’re working hard, trying to get into the best possible university, sometimes balancing a rigid academic schedule with sports or other extracurricular activities that are always impressive on a college application. You’re nervously preparing for your very first date, getting ready for your first prom.

And these days there are other concerns. Perhaps your parents are getting a divorce. Maybe drugs or alcohol are causing family problems. It could be a parent has been laid off from a job or serious disease has struck a sibling. It can all build up, making you tense, causing you to lose sleep, perhaps leading to trouble in school or making you depressed.

Luckily students in the Pinelands Regional School District have a place to go for help. The district is one of three in Ocean County, the others being Brick and Lakewood, that offer counseling and other services via a cooperative effort of the district and the New Jersey Department of Children and Families Division of Prevention & Community Partnerships.

The program, called School Based Youth Services, was launched back in 1987, and the PRSD joined the next year.

“Since 1988 Pinelands Youth Services has offered a safe and supportive environment for students and their families using a one-stop-shopping approach,” reads the program’s brochure. “Core services include individual and family counseling, health services, learning support and employment counseling. Recreational services are also an integral part of the program. Since our inception, Pinelands Youth Services has been addressing the needs of youth in our community.”

It is a large program. According to its director, Karen Kenney, it has 10 full-time and one part-time employees working in both the high and junior high schools. It is jointly funded, with New Jersey paying 75 percent while the school district contributes 25 percent.

It is a busy program. Kenney said almost 500 students were individually counseled during the past school year while another 400 or so took advantage of group sessions.

Some students, she said, seek out counseling on their own. At other times concerned parents contact Pinelands Youth Services to initiate counseling or a teacher makes a referral. Family therapy is also available.

“They (students) don’t have to accept counseling; there’s nothing mandatory about it,” said Kenney.

“Kids come in for a variety of issues,” she said. “There are peer issues, challenges at home. We unfortunately have a large group of kids who have grief or loss issues.”

“In 1998 we started out very small,” said Kenney. “It originally was just in the high school, and then we went into the junior high.”

Students arriving at the junior high school, she said, often have problems fitting in to a larger school after attending smaller elementary schools.

“The different sending districts (Bass River, Tuckerton, Eagleswood and Little Egg Harbor) send kids, and they’re all crammed into one place. That age group is not yet equipped with the skills to get by.”

Some children have a problem with bullying, although Kenney said, “Pinelands does a really good job with that; they (administrators, teachers and staff) take it very seriously. The policy is very clear – the administration has taken a very strong stand.”

Superstorm Sandy caused its own set of problems.

“After Sandy there was a big uptick (in kids seeking counseling),” said Kenney. “Kids were displaced from their homes. There was a lot of grief because friends were leaving, moving away.”

Sometimes students you’d never think have some problems need a little help, the high achievers who seem to have it all together. But they, too, have their own problems. If students in the United States haven’t quite reached the level of students in Japan – where they get only a five-week summer vacation, have to clean their school at the end of classes every day because there are no janitors, and often attend a juko or “cram school” after regular school to prepare for the all-important college entrance examinations that basically decide a student’s adult future – the battle to get into a top flight college or university can be exhausting and stressful.

“There is a lot of AP (Advanced Placement) support in the high school,” said Kenney, “innovative creative types of things such as yoga or meditation. We have a ‘happy hour’ during lunchtime where they aren’t allowed to study but instead play games like cards or UNO. It is unwinding time.”

The Pinelands Youth Service counselors are well trained.

“They have a variety of training,” said Kenney, who has been the program’s director for 13 years. “Some are licensed clinical social workers, others are licensed social workers, some are licensed professional counselors. Our level of expertise is big. We’re quite proud of it.”

Pinelands Youth Services fills a void in Southern Ocean County.

“This is a fairly rural area,” Kenney said. “Resources are limited in this area. Up by Toms River you have more counseling services available. One of the neatest things is this program is offering free, easily accessible resources.”

Although counseling is a huge part of the Pinelands program, there is a full range of services. The health care program that includes general counseling also provides drug and alcohol abuse counseling and family planning information. The employment effort provides life skills counseling, attempts to hook up students with full- and part-time summer jobs, seeks to find community employment, provides job postings in the program office and holds an annual jobs fair. An educational enrichment program includes peer tutoring, life skills workshops and parenting workshops. Finally, the recreation component sponsors after-school, evening and weekend activities including trips, events and sports.

Pinelands School Based Services is also known for its adventure ropes course and its community summer recreation program, which sponsored 32 camps this summer.

The ropes course – sort of like a military obstacle course – teaches the teamwork and problem-solving skills necessary to both complete the course and become a successful adult. Sports teams and teachers utilize the ropes course as well as the general student population, especially incoming seventh-grade classes.

“That continues to be an extremely big part of our services,” said Kenney.

The camps offered a wide range of experiences for kids ranging from 5 years of age to 16 at reasonable prices ranging from $10 to $100. Sports played a large role, with basketball, baseball, softball, flag football, tennis and martial arts all having their own camp or camps for different ages. But a boating safety course was also offered, as were improvisational acting classes, a camp that taught wilderness skills, and canoeing and fossiling trips.

Twenty student volunteers assisted the eight adults hired to oversee the camps, learning job skills.

“These kids can put this work on their resumes,” said Kenney.

“I can’t share everything we do,” she told the Pinelands Regional Board of Education at its Aug. 17 meeting. “You’d be here all night.”

At that meeting, Kenney read three letters she had received, from a former student, a parent and a teacher, all praising the program. The recent grad’s letter was most touching.

The student was referred for counseling while in junior high school after her best friend had been killed by a drunken driver. She was reluctant at first, writing that after meeting with a counselor for the first time, “I wanted nothing to do with her.” But that changed.

“I kept talking,” she wrote. “Something changed in me.”

When she reached high school, she was assigned a new counselor.

“She was not a stranger,” she wrote. “She had helped my family in the past.”

All of the counseling worked.

“Today,” she wrote, “I can say I’m a strong, independent person who has an amazing future ahead of me.”

— Rick Mellerup

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