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Challenger Program More Than a Job for PSU Students: Mental Health Mission

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PITTSBURG, KANSAS -

   Behavior problems in school are often how students exhibit a mental health issue.
     But the challenger program in Pittsburg puts trained Pittsburg State University students in positions to be role models for change.  One mentor has seen the program from both sides.


Phillip Norris was getting help in accounting class Tuesday. The PSU student knows how personal attention can make a big difference especially for a kid with a mental health issue. He was diagnosed with ADHD and other issues at age four. 
Phillip explained, "They call it SED, severely emotionally disturbed. I was a very angry child.  I acted out a lot. I hit. I spit. I kicked."

 The director of mental health in Crawford County with the Challenger Program, Mike Ehling, met Norris at age four. Ehling said, "He had been kicked out of seven child care centers. He had no other place to go. And so we developed a therapeutic preschool for him."


Norris was one of the first to experience the challenger program back in 1996.  He graduated it in fifth grade and like some fifteen hundred PSU students over the years, he went to work there as a mentor to help other kids.

Norris said, "Just relating to them on their level and understanding their frustrations and what they are feeling, compared to what we see."

The program is embedded into local schools so as not to call attention to the students by taking them to a mental health facility.
And there’s a curriculum based on the Boy’s Town social skills.

Ehling gave one example, "Four steps to learning following directions,  like, look a person in the eye. say ok go and do it, and check back when you're done. So they’re all observable kinds of skills and you can tell whether a kid is practicing a skill while you're doing a game or activity.”

Norris used dodge-ball as an example. "Instead of getting hit with the ball, getting out and blowing up. You stay focused, concentrate on the situation, react appropriately, and wait until your next turn."

Ehling added, "The beauty of what we do is, it’s fun and so it’s not a didactic, bore you to death with lots of talk."

Mentors work in a one to four ratio with kids ages three to eighteen making personal connections.
Norris reflected, “It’s like they were almost  a big brother, big sister trying to help you specifically."

That helped put him on the path to college and like other challenger graduates, the path to a brighter future.

Norris said, "I can’t even begin to imagine where my life would be now without the mental health."
    
 About six years ago, Norris testified in Topeka about the program and helped get millions of dollars cut from mental health restored.
     He may need to do it again.
     Ehling  says current funding led to cuts of two staff positions and his agency not filling vacated positions.


 

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