Tuesday, August 12, 2014 || By Michael Romain
HILLSIDE — Hundreds cycled through the courtyard facing Wolf Road on the campus of Proviso West High School in Hillside Saturday for a back to school fair that featured more than just school supplies. Representatives from a range of social service organizations, such as Youth Outreach Services, The Answer, Inc., and the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services circulated educational literature.
While some youth waited to get their faces painted and younger children hopped and did somersaults in an inflatable bounce house erected in the courtyard’s grassy enclosure, others waited to receive free medical and dental exams within a mobile clinic parked outside of the school’s front entrance. The day was punctuated by a dynamic performance by the Proviso East Marching Band.
“We had over 70 people lined up for health exams in the first hour,” said the fair’s host, State Rep. Chris Welch (D-7th) (pictured left). He said that doctors and dentists from Westlake Hospital, Circle Family Health Care Network, PCC Community Wellness and the Children’s Clinic administered the exams. The fair lasted from 10 AM to about 3 PM.
“We wanted to provide overall wellness–from dental exams to STD tests,” said Rep. Welch. “We’re trying to do well-rounded care for kids of all ages before they go back to school.”
Verna Singletary, a volunteer for the fair and the parent of a former Proviso West student, said that the services focusing on students’ bodily needs are as vital as those catering to their academic progress.
“Our kids need vaccines,” she said. “They need good dental hygiene. All of this is important and its free.”
Sal Layne, a representative with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Metro Suburban, would add an emphasis on mental health to the comprehensive list of wellness attributes that were covered at the fair. He stressed the need for more people to understand the physiological nature of mental illness.
“There’s a lot of stigma associated with mental illness,” he said. “But it’s a medical illness. People want to push it aside, especially with the media projecting certain images.”
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Melinda Vazquez, a clinical crisis therapist for Presence Behavioral Health Pro Care, reinforced Layne’s point, noting that mental illness is often caused, or exacerbated, by young people’s social environments–which partly explained her presence in Proviso West’s courtyard.
“We get a lot of issues with self-harm and anger management,” she said. “There’s so much that we deal with that is connected to past trauma that is never resolved. A lot of issues are connected to poverty and economic conditions.”
Jennifer Nye works extensively with teenage victims of domestic violence and sexual assault at the nonprofit social service organization Pillars. Nye, who noted that she often treats students at Proviso West, said that a lot of her efforts are targeted at education and awareness.
“We try to help [our clients] find the signs of trauma early on and provide them with information about healthy relationships, so they can build their own healthy relationships from that,” she said.
Often, however, health crises are much more literal and immediate, which is why Sheri Williams, who directs community presence for the American Red Cross, stressed the importance of emergency training.
“I don’t think that there’s enough emergency awareness among young students,” she said. Williams said that she intends to try partnering with Rep. Welch to provide more certification courses in areas such as CPR and disaster preparedness to close that awareness gap.
Andy Martinez, a special projects and events coordinator with the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), said that his agency has partnered with the American Red Cross on a variety of initiatives, such as drowning prevention.
“We lose way too many kids every year to drowning-related deaths,” Martinez said. “It only takes a couple of seconds for a child to drown.”
While the range of issues could have been somewhat overwhelming for the average parent or student or guardian, Proviso West Principal Oscar Hawthorne was careful to point out that the day was only the beginning in what he says will be an ongoing process of connecting students and parents to much-needed resources. At the health fair, he was in conversation with Sandra Harrison, the Executive Director of Youth Outreach Services.
“This is a great platform for kids to prepare and start thinking about going back to school,” said Harrison, whose consulting company, DVA Leadership and Development Training, will be administering conflict mediation training at Proviso West this upcoming school year.
“Proviso West is committed to connecting our students to resources during the school year and beyond,” he said. “The goal is to provide opportunities for students and staff so that we can continue to improve the social climate of our school.” VFP