August 23, 2016 8:30AM
Quietly, without fanfare and largely under the radar, the Challenger Program is changing the lives of Crawford County children and it wouldn’t be happening without the hard work of scores of current and former Pittsburg State University students.
Challenger is a community based psychosocial group treatment program of the Crawford County Mental Health Center (CCMHC) that serves seriously emotionally disturbed (SED) children. Summer Challenger ended on Aug. 5, having served about 150 children ages 3-19 and employing about 75 PSU students. The after-school Challenger program began on Monday, Aug. 22.
Mike Ehling, director of children’s services for CCMHC, said Challenger was developed in 1993 and was influenced by a staff retreat with Scott Gorman, a professor in PSU’s Department of Health, Human Performance and Recreation, who led the staff in team-building exercises based on the Adventure Based Counseling model; and from Newt Gingrich who, as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, made a passing comment about Boy’s Town in a news conference on social issues.
Ehling said he checked out Boy’s Town, which had just published the Boy’s Town Social Skills curriculum. That curriculum emphasized things like following directions, showing respect, disagreeing appropriately, and other behaviors that became the second leg of the Challenger model.
“Games and activities are naturally imbedded with social skills,” Ehling said. “Challenger was born out an understanding that the natural means for children to learn social skills is through play and activities, rather than a didactic-only methodology.”
Ehling said the program is designed to help children “with chronic, long-term issues rather than the short-term adjustment issues (that these children are dealing with). So, it means having a DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) diagnosis, being under the age of 18 and then having a functional impairment in home, community or school. So, things are not going well in one of those three environments.”
Pittsburg Community Schools provides space for Challenger and children are transported to the program from all across the county.
“The schools have been gracious to let us use the school buildings,” Ehling said. “It takes some of the stigma away from kids once school is out to be able to just go down to another room in the school building. It’s also where these kids are six hours a day. It created a better, seamless system of service design.”
The ratio of students to workers in Challenger is just 4:1, so it takes a significant number of staff to run the program. Most are current or former PSU students.
“It would be very, very difficult to operate without the PSU students,” Ehling said. “I’m really not sure how we could do that.”
Emily Gronau, who directs Challenger, said the focus for the program is on improving problem-solving, social and personal relationship skills.
The staff uses a variety of strategies to help the children work on the skills they have targeted, including arts and crafts activities, playground games, field trips, sit-down activities, coloring and drawing.
“The beauty of what we do, is we don’t do just one thing,” Gronau said. “Each morning (during Summer Challenger) there’s a skill activity where they talk about what their focus is going to be for the day. Each of the groups has its own routine. There’s time outside early in the day and in the afternoon. We use the summer reading program at the library. There’s swimming, bowling and a lot of activities our kids aren’t exposed to and different times we’ve incorporated music and rhythmic activities. The staff comes up with some pretty creative things. Everything ties back to the social skills.”
For middle school and high school students, the activities are more focused on community service, working with Parks and Recreation and developing work skills.
The PSU students who lead these activities don’t come from just the predictable ranks of education, psychology and social work majors, Ehling said, but from all across campus. That’s possible because of rigorous training.
“We created our own training based on our own experience,” Ehling said. “It was created grassroots and developed by people doing the work who understood the work. We partnered with WSU at the time and developed modules that I would rank in the top nationally. All of our psycho-social staff must take certain modules.”
Professional staff and case managers are readily available for consultation.
Beyond the training, however, Challenger’s success over the decades depends on personal connections between the staff and the children they serve, Ehling said, who estimates he has hired close to 1,500 PSU students in the past 25 years.
Three Gorillas know well how important those personal connections can be. Bethany Coward earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from PSU in 2014. Keith Overton, a school psychologist with Interlocal 637, has three degrees from PSU. Mary Lenhausen is a current PSU early childhood/special education major. This was Lenhausen’s second year to work Summer Challenger. It was Coward’s fifth and Overton’s ninth.
All three said they keep coming back not only because of what they bring to the children with whom they work, but also because of the personal satisfaction they get from doing the work.
“We (the staff) have a bond with the kids that they don’t get from kids their age,” Lenhausen said. “We can be good role models and give them guidance. I got to work with this one boy – he needed a lot. He didn’t bond with anyone else. Now he comes to me. He calls me his best friend.”
Coward said she recently ran into a youngster she had worked with three years ago.
“She’s no longer needing services. She’s out in the community and doing things. It’s what makes this job so rewarding,” Coward said.
Overton talked about a particularly difficult case.
“I had a student I did attendant care with for a year,” Overton said. “We talked about sending him to an alternate school. It took about a month, but we developed a plan and put it into processes. It made me really believe in the process. I felt like I was an integral part of that process. By the end of the year, he was a totally different person.”
Phillip Norris, now a senior construction management major at PSU, said he was “one of those kids.”
“I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was about four years old,” Norris said. “I had trouble in school.”
Norris said he was in the inaugural Challenger after-school program.
“It was the same structure it has today,” Norris said. “We focused on tasks and worked on a skill each day. The staff was really on point with redirecting kids. Skills really are the biggest thing. We’d work on one for a week and apply it.”
By the time he was ready for fifth grade, Norris was off his IEP (Individualized Education Program). He went on to work for Crawford County Mental Health for a year after graduating from high school and later worked in law enforcement before deciding to continue his education. Norris has been an advocate for children’s services before the Kansas legislature.
“The relationships that our staff make with a lot of these kids, even over the course of the summer, can be really powerful,” Ehling said.
So much so, that the final week of Summer Challenger is designed to help the staff and the children bring the experience to a healthy closure.
Ehling and Gronau said the Challenger experience can be valuable for university students in many ways.
For teachers to be, Ehling said, it can be good preparation for the classroom.
“It really equips them well because we’ve given them tools to use when a kid gets in a spot where he’s erupting with anger and defiance...for what seems like forever,” Ehling said. “The biggest thing we teach the (the staff) is how to manage themselves. If you can’t manage yourself, you’re not going to be able to manage the kid.”
“Keeping kids engaged is a really hard task at times,” Gronau said. “Having that skill is a great asset in any facet of life. They (the staff) do a lot of problem solving, a lot of scheduling and organizing.”
Overton said his experience working in Challenger has changed his view of some things in his own life.
“Working with middle school and high school boys, working on these practical skills, makes me appreciate my parents,” Overton said with a smile.
For more information on Challenger and other services available for children through Crawford County Mental Health, visit their website at http://www.crawfordmentalhealth.org/services-2/childrens-services or call 620-232-3228.