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Effort includes meal program at Edwards Elementary, mental health support, calendar of activities and more

Following the suicide of a Newberg High School student during Thanksgiving break in 2016, the school district scrambled to find ways to support students over the ensuing winter break, especially by keeping them connected to each other and to needed resources.

It was a collaborative effort that included the local faith community and various public agencies and set the tone for how the school district would approach youth suicide and mental health over the past year. SETH GORDON - Newberg High School senior Jackson Steele and assistant principal Tony Buckner load up a truck with food boxes collected and assembled for families to use over winter break. Most schools in the district provided the boxes to some of their families as part of a larger district effort to keep students and families supported and connected during the two-week break from school. 

The district and partners like Providence Mental Health Group, Newberg Christian Church, George Fox University, Chehalem Park and Recreation District (CPRD) and Yamhill County Mental Health were therefore better prepared this time around and launched a comprehensive effort prior to the start of break Dec. 15.

"It really has been a nice community effort to ensure that families and kids are getting support and know what's available to do over the holiday break," NHS Assistant Principal Tony Buckner said.

Most, if not all, schools in the district have prepared food boxes for families in the past, but this winter the program was not only stepped up but used to coordinate other efforts.

Schools worked well ahead of time to identify students and families that might need support over the break, then also used the boxes to distribute things like pool passes from CPRD and bus passes from the Yamhill County Transit Area. Each box, some of which were intended to help feed families over the course of break and others included all the fixings for a holiday meal, also included a flyer from Yamhill County Mental Health with information about the availability of mental health services over the break.

"They've even staggered a lot of their professionals to not be off during this time and to be available," Buckner said.

In addition to participating in the Friday Food Bag program at Joan Austin Elementary School, Newberg Christian Church also volunteered to provide food boxes to NHS this year. The GFU Office of Spiritual Life, Willcuts Realtors and the NHS Resource Room also donated either food or gift cards for the boxes.

Newberg Emerging Friends Church also jumped in last week to provide about 40 additional food boxes for NHS.

"It really allowed us serve a lot more of our students," Buckner said. "I think Catalyst got 40 boxes. It was high spike in the number of boxes we were able to gather this year."

He added that with the help of staff from the district office, the majority of food boxes had already been delivered by the end of school Friday.

"Most of the families were home, so it's great to see faces and getting to surprise them," Buckner said. "A lot of families shared that they were struggling, so it's great knowing people in their community care about them and wanted to see that they have a happy holiday as best as possible."

Providence Mental Health Group, which was an important partner in providing mental health screenings and treatment services to students both this past spring and in a more systemic way this school year, has also been following up with the families to offer support during break. Providence is also offering free screenings to families who might be worried about their student over the next two weeks.

"I would definitely say we've seen an increase in need from last year," Buckner said. "Families are really struggling right now and not just with financial or material needs, but emotional and social. As the holidays come up, it's a tough time for kids to be alone or away from their normal routine."

This district has also set up a holiday lunch program at Edwards Elementary that will run from 11 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday this week and Dec. 26-28. Yamhill County Mental Health will be on site during that time to provide more support. The district has once again posted a calendar of events over break on its website, as well.

Buckner said the ongoing effort to better support the mental health of students has been more effective this school year because school officials not only focused on building relationships with students, but also with their families.

"I would have to say that was one area (NHS Principal Kyle) Laier really pointed out that we needed to do a better job with: making sure families didn't see us as an unconnected entity that worked in isolation and that we are part of a bigger community and we need to understand our role and what we can do to help," Buckner said. "I think this process has helped build some relationships, build some trust within our own families here in the community."

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