ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — New Jersey’s budget can’t be balanced on the backs of children. But if planned cuts to a beloved state program aren’t rolled back, Essex County youth who are struggling with mental health issues will be among those who pay the price, advocates say.
Recently, officials announced that the 2021 budget would eliminate all 90 School-Based Youth Services Programs (SBYSP) in New Jersey. The program funds mental health counseling, employment counseling, substance abuse prevention, suicide prevention, pregnancy prevention and sexual assault prevention in school communities across the state.
The program, which has been operating as a grant-funded initiative in schools across the state since 1987, is set to be eliminated starting Oct. 1.
Family Connections NJ says it’s one of the organizations that will suffer if funds are cut. The East Orange-based group manages SBYSPs at Maplewood Middle School, Columbia High School, Orange High School and Bloomfield High School.
“In three local high schools and two middle schools, we have full-time staff and our own spaces that don’t feel like school,” Family Connections NJ states on their website.
State funding is crucial to that effort, the group says:
“At first, kids often just come to play video games or foosball after school, when they have nowhere else to hang out that’s safe and welcoming. Many decide to join our groups on homework help and SAT prep. Others trust us enough to tackle challenges like safe sex, dating violence, LGBTQ peer support, bereavement and more … When they have a crisis or loss at home, they come to our licensed mental health clinicians. When a teacher or another student hears of a suicide threat, they bring the youth to us. So sometimes, we literally save lives.”
“Losing these 90 programs would be a devastating blow to thousands of students throughout the state who are struggling now more than ever with depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and difficulties at home,” CEO Jacques Hryshko said.
“The pandemic has only deepened the need for SBYSP services,” Hryshko added.
An online petition to save the program has been aimed at Murphy, Sen. Stephen Sweeney and the New Jersey Department of Children and Families. As of Tuesday, it’s garnered more than 32,000 signatures.
YOUTH SPEAK: SAVE SBYSP
The group shared a letter from Jhimmyly Charles, a former Bloomfield High School student who urged state legislators to roll back the cuts.
“In particular, I can wholeheartedly say my life was saved by The Den. I come from very humble beginnings as the eldest of four children in a single parent household. By grace, I was extended the opportunity to live with my father in Bloomfield to receive a higher level of education than the town I lived in previously could provide. The expenses were extremely difficult to keep up with which caused my father to have to work extreme hours just to make ends meet. The Den served as my well of infinite knowledge and resources. It also provided me with a safe environment to tackle many of the internal issues I battled during my teens. I felt alone moving to a big, new town and my mental state was negatively impacted. The relationships I made through Family Connections are everlasting and I can honestly say without The Den, I am not sure where I would be today. As of this letter, I am a first-generation college graduate and it would not be possible without the help and support that The Den provided. I am only one of the many students with this similar story and through their summer mentoring program, even I was able to impact the lives of the younger students who came after me. Not only was I able to grow and mature, but The Den enabled me to become an example for the next generation. It puts great sadness in my heart to know that The Den will no longer be a place of solace for the children going through the very difficult transition to high school.”
“This year, all students throughout the state are coping with the pandemic. Many have lost loved ones to COVID-19. Many have felt socially isolated, away from their friends, and are anxious about coming back to school this year. How could these programs be cut at a time when these children and youth need them most? High school is a very crucial time for the development of a young man or woman, and without certain support systems we will see very detrimental long-term effects to their mental health. In my opinion, the School Based Youth Services Programs are needed. They should be implemented in all schools nationwide because we aren’t all afforded the opportunities to experience the pleasures of having enough income to be enrolled in many different extracurricular activities. We are not all afforded a safe recreational space to discuss our issues, learn healthy coping mechanisms, learn social skills, build trusting relationships, or be ourselves. We are not all afforded the clinical counseling services needed to help de-escalate crisis situations. We are not all afforded extra resources to prepare for life after high school with employment planning and assistance filling out college application, financial aid forms, or editing college essays. School Based Youth Services Programs are essential and provide services that are eligible to ALL youth and are designed to promote high academic performance, vocational self-efficacy and social self-efficacy. This should be standard for the entire education system. Please restore funding for all the School-Based Youth Services Programs throughout New Jersey. The budget cannot be balanced on the backs of children and youth in need, especially in these uncertain times.”
Former Maplewood Middle School student Tai Artis also offered a letter of support for the program.
“When I heard about The Hub, Family Connections’ School-Based Youth Services Program at Maplewood Middle School closing, it hit me hard. When I look back on The Hub I remember how important it was to me when I was in Middle School. It was a safe place where me and my friends could go and blow off some steam, play video games and hangout. The Hub is one of the only after school activities at Maplewood Middle School where Black and Brown children feel truly included, not a minority and where we felt as though we were in a space that accepted us.
“After we’ve had a crappy day and are not feeling our best, The Hub was always there for us when we needed that extra mood boost. Oftentimes kids at the Hub have difficulty in their classes and issues at home and school and The Hub was always an area and many times the only one where children could go to have these issues addressed and have a safe space to talk them through them in The Hub office.
“I’ve even gone there to talk about my own personal issues and cool down after incidents that happened at school. Each time, they really listened to me and made me feel much better. I’ve seen the kind hearts of its staff in my time there and I’ve always seen them go the extra mile to help the kids at the program.
“I’ve seen Mr. E, Mr. Niguel, Ms. Sarah, Ms. Candace, Ms. Jill and Mrs. Jay always check on kids and have personal conversations with them to make sure they’re feeling good about themselves something which is not often done in Maplewood Middle School by a whole lot of staff, especially to Black and Brown children who simply need that extra support and encouragement outside of home and the classroom to thrive.
“The Hub staff never fell short of their duty. The staff there always made sure that kids knew that they mattered, that people cared about them and that they can achieve anything they set their mind to if they were willing to put in the hard work. It breaks my heart to know that this program may be ending soon because of budget cuts.
“The Hub is part of the heart and soul of Maplewood Middle School, an essential service and most importantly is the only free childcare program that all children are able to access which tremendously helps lower income families who can’t afford other childcare.
“It pains me to think that it is very likely many children will never get to experience the laughter, friendship, holiday parties, games and good times that I’ve experienced at The Hub or have people hear them through when they are having a hard time.
“The Hub is a huge part of the reason middle school was so special to me and without it I know Middle School will not be the same to hundreds and hundreds of students at Maplewood Middle School. It is far from inessential and is a backbone of Maplewood Middle School.
“Getting rid of the program would eliminate the largest, most impactful and most significant safe space for students of color in our school where students who often never get a chance have the time to get heard out and listened to. It would also be an inconceivably large detriment to the mental health of students. Most importantly it is morally wrong from a societal standpoint to get rid of this program and will have severe consequences on the children of our school district. Not only that but it would also take away jobs from good people who pay their dues to society, help our school and positively impact and inspire children in our school on an everyday basis.
“No matter what happens to The Hub, I am proud to have been a part of such a wonderful program and I can never thank the staff there enough. Because of their hard work and sincere heartfelt care I felt as though I mattered in Middle School and had more fun than I could have possibly imagined at Maplewood Middle School. I only hope that other students will get to experience the same.”
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This article originally appeared on the Bloomfield Patch