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Thursday, December 17, 2020

Donor Gift Furthers Partnership Between HEY Clinic, Local Elementary School

Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary
Photo courtesy of San Diego Unified School District. 

At schools like San Diego’s Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary, what goes on in the classroom or the Zoom room is often only part of the story. 

On the surface, a teacher might see a student with a behavioral problem or poor attendance. What’s harder to see at this urban school, where 100 percent of the students receive free or reduced lunch, is the trauma many children face outside of class. Maybe it’s a parent facing a job loss, or a family facing food insecurity, or loved ones separated by immigration issues. 

“These kids are getting in trouble because they need something, not because they're malicious,” said Pamela Lhuillier, a first grade teacher at Joyner. “There are a lot of challenges in home life that we don't know about. I think teachers sometimes are so committed to the curriculum and what they need to deliver instructionally that sometimes they can't account for — or even notice — the (subtle) things that kids are going through.” 

Fortunately for Lhuillier and the children of Joyner, San Diego State University’s Healthy Early Years Clinic (HEY) has provided a second set of eyes. Funded by a California Department of Education School Improvement Grant, HEY clinician Helen Kuhn was on site last school year, serving as an adult presence attuned to the social-emotional needs of students and adept at recognizing the signs of trauma. 

“It makes the school more welcoming to have someone like that on campus,” Lhuillier said. 

And a recent gift to HEY will allow it to remain so. 

Because state funding lasted only one year, Joyner did not expect to be able to bring a HEY clinician back for the 2020-21 school year. Fortunately, an anonymous donor has stepped in to fill the void, meaning Kuhn will return to the school site — albeit virtually — starting in January. The donor was moved to act when they heard about the positive impact HEY had made for students.  

A counselor training facility located in San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood, HEY provides low-cost family, couples and child therapy services. In addition to its physical clinic, HEY provides its services in school settings. It currently has clinicians serving students in seven elementary and middle schools in the San Diego Unified School District. 

“I think this really points to the need for mental health services in school settings and the challenge that teachers have in trying to do it all,” said Dr. Lisa Linder, assistant professor in Child and Family Development and director of HEY. “I think it's often really unfair to expect them to be mental health people as well as teachers and do everything from a place of excellence. I think what they need is someone who specializes in that in between — between education and mental health. 

“I think that's something we do very well.” 

Part of what makes HEY’s work in schools successful, Linder said, is ease of access. Other agencies that offer school-based services are funded through Medi-Cal, increasing the red tape involved for parents and other caregivers. 

“Our number one goal is getting the children support — children who may never see a mental health person otherwise,” Linder said. “The children are able to get weekly mental health support to process and deal with whatever is going on. And the teacher gets customized supports so they can better connect with the child in their classroom.” 

Joyner has been a success story. 

Lhuillier recalls an instance last school year, seeing Kuhn spending a moment outside with a few of her behaviorally-challenged students. It was nothing outwardly extraordinary; they were just talking and enjoying a game of catch. But to the teacher, it was a meaningful moment. 

“She was just meeting them in their context,” Lhuillier, recalls. “A lot of times when they meet another trusted adult, it's in a punitive way or on the adult's terms.” 

While class at Joyner remains virtual because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lhuillier is already looking forward to having Kuhn back in the mix come January to lead small group sessions and play groups. She added that the Zoom environment offers unique insight into chaotic home settings, which are often apparent on the calls. 

Added Lhuillier: “I think having another person at the school — an adult who has your back — is incredibly important for the kids.”

If you'd like to make a donation to the Healthy Early Years Clinic to help support mental health services for young children and their families please give online or contact Megan Beardsley, director of development, at