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Project CHILL

Normally, kids get mental health treatment after diagnosis, intervention after an illness becomes evident. At the Family Outreach Center in Grand Rapids a prevention program called Project CHILL is for kids who don’t have mental health issues. But their parents do, and that puts them at risk for developing illnesses later in life. The weekly after-school CHILL sessions are designed to educate kids on mental illness and teach them skills to cope with the issues surrounding it.
Michigan Nightlight: Tell us briefly about your program in terms of its purpose and who it serves.
CHILL Program Coordinator Rob Conrad: Project CHILL is a youth enrichment and prevention program for kids aged six to 17 who have parents or guardians who are currently receiving mental health treatment. Kids who are currently receiving mental health treatment services themselves do not qualify, because that’s a step beyond prevention.
What really differentiates this program?
It’s the only program of its kind in Kent County. Prevention for youth isn’t the focus for most mental health agencies. The focus is usually on intervention or treatment. Most do outpatient or group therapy treatment after the problem is diagnosed. Normally, kids won’t get treatment until some sort of behavior disrupts everyday life, and they need to see a social worker or psychiatrist. But we know, statistically, that kids whose parents or guardians have a mental health diagnosis are at a higher risk of developing a mental illness, and we are here for prevention, not intervention. 
Prevention for youth isnít the focus for most mental health agencies.

What are the keys to success for your program?
In order to help reduce the risk of a child requiring mental health services, we help them learn these five core competencies: positive communication skills, problem-solving skills, coping skills, positive self-esteem, and an understanding of mental health treatment, mental health issues and stability.
We do this in-group prevention four nights a week. The kids are split into four groups by age and development level; each group meets one day for two hours. We talk with the kids about all of our successes and failures, from the previous week. We call them “up-beats” and “beat-downs.”
We open the floor at our sessions and get everyone talking about the topic of the week. This week’s topic was bullying and how it relates to mental health. Our groups are collectively working on our own anti-bullying campaign to use here at CHILL. Right now, during the anti-bullying lessons, we are all making peace sign cutouts and decorating them with bright colors and peaceful messages. The kids really bond together doing group exercises like this. That’s key.
Another key, and what I think is great about our program, is that we can give services to any child in Kent County, and their parent can be receiving services from any mental health provider. We get referrals from parents, clinicians, therapists and other agencies.
What existing challenges remain with this program and how do you plan to overcome them?
As a staff, we love it when we can see a topic take off, when the kids enjoy it enough to take it to levels that we didnít anticipate.
One of our biggest challenge is that kids are so busy these days that it’s difficult to keep them involved in prevention. They’ve got music, sports, youth groups, after-school tutors – lots of things that could stand in the way. We meet that challenge by providing transportation to every kid in the program with our agency vehicles. We pick them up from school, home, practices, wherever they are, and take them home afterward.
We also eat dinner with them. Macaroni and cheese, ravioli, that kind of thing. Pizza nights and taco nights are big hits. These things work – we’re flexible and it definitely makes it easier to keep kids in CHILL.
Another challenge for us is getting the word out: letting people know who we are and what we do. Letting them know that this service is available. We recently started doing this with presentations twice a month. We go to other mental health agencies and to therapists to explain what we do. We are also putting a real emphasis on staying in touch with therapists who have given us referrals in the past. We follow through with them and make sure that they have the information they need to pass along to co-workers and other therapists. 
What are people in your program most inspired by?
The kids are definitely inspired by the small victories that they report to us each week.

Sometimes they say that they did something at school that we taught them, and they are proud of themselves for remembering it. As a staff, we love it when we can see a topic take off, when the kids enjoy it enough to take it to levels that we didn’t anticipate.

And we’re very inspired when parents tell us that their children are using skills at home that they learned at CHILL.
How do race or diversity affect the work of your program?
Our program is very diverse and so is our staff. This is cool, because we end up sharing things about differences in race and culture. This seems to happen at dinner a lot. Food naturally brings people together, so sometimes the kids talk about foods they eat at home. Foods that some of the others have never heard of, so they get to hear about different meals, different holidays, and the ways that other cultures celebrate them.

What makes that great is that the kids come from many different cultural and racial backgrounds, but it they are all coming together with one thing in common – a parent in mental health treatment.
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