Island Wide Youth Collaborative connects the dots for community

The organization will celebrate its one-year anniversary in May.

From left, Island Wide Youth Collaborative program director Nell Coogan, Martha's Vineyard Community Services director Julie Fay, and IWYC program coordinator Susan Mercier spoke about the program's first year. – Photo by Cathryn McCann

Across the street from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School and next to the YMCA, tucked in the back parking lot of the Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS) campus, is a small, shingled building that is home to many Island-wide social service initiatives for young people. In its first year, the Island Wide Youth Collaborative (IWYC) has introduced a number of programs, community trainings, parent workshops, and gatherings.

The Times recently sat down with MVCS director Julie Fay, IWYC program coordinator Susan Mercier, IWYC program director Nell Coogan, and communications manager Mary Korba to talk about the organization’s first year.

The IWYC is a collaboration between five key community organizations: the Island schools, YMCA, Youth Task Force, Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, and MVCS. It first opened its doors in May 2015. Ms. Fay said the first year has gone “better than expected,” because the five organizations had already been designing the IWYC for over a year prior to its startup.

“That relationship I think continues to thrive, and that’s why we’ve been really able to hit the ground running,” Ms. Fay said.

The IWYC often acts as a liaison between the various organizations charged with addressing youth health and well-being.

“One of the things we were most concerned about was that while we all saw the same kids and same families in our five organizations, we were not very good at collaborating with one another,” Ms. Fay said, noting that individuals often had to tell their stories multiple times.

“Now people are connected, and I’ve got to think that kind of seamlessness is really a much better experience on the part of the families involved,” she said. “And we can be aware to a situation that’s decomposing. If a kid is identified early on in the week over at the high school as someone who is slipping, the phones start ringing, and we’re able to interact and intervene quickly.”

The IWYC provides direct services as well, along with a psychological services coordinator and a team of case managers, “and boy have they been busy,” Ms. Fay said. In the fall of 2014, those designing the IWYC conducted a needs assessment to identify service gaps for adolescents in the community. The results were clear. The top concern in the community was substance abuse, followed by trauma, self-harm, and body-image and eating disorders.

Tackling substance abuse

Monday, Ms. Fay said the IWYC recognizes that substance abuse among youth is a top concern for the community.

“Substance abuse is huge right now,” Ms. Fay said. “The whole opioid crisis is something that’s taking its own twists and turns, and we’re finding ourselves in a situation where we have to respond, and respond in concert with other entities on the Island to do it.”

As a result, the organization rolled out a number of new programs to address that concern. The initiative kicked off with the creation of an adolescent recovery education group called Pathfinders, which is a group of high schoolers who meet with clinicians during lunchtime at the IWYC twice a week for six weeks.

“It’s been very well attended by kids,” Ms. Fay said. “It’s really for kids who are using, who are worried about their use of alcohol or drugs, and those who are really trying to do something about it.”

Ms. Coogan said the midday program has been so successful that they, in collaboration with the school nurse and health teacher, are looking at working it into the school curriculum.

“We’re talking about building it in so that they’re getting some credit in terms of health,” she said, “because it is all about health and wellness and prevention and education.”

For young adults, the IWYC identified the need for “recovery coaches,” or people in the community who can be available to those in recovery anywhere, at any time. The IWYC is bringing Thulani DeMarsay, a coach and trainer for addiction recovery, to the Island to hold a “recovery coach academy.” So far, 23 of the 25 volunteer slots have been filled. “The nice thing about that is the diversity of the people who are volunteering to do this,” Ms. Fay said. “Men, women, adults, young people …”

“People from law enforcement have signed up,” Ms. Mercier said. “Some coaches at the high school, some therapists, some life coaches.”

Another major initiative, in collaboration with the hospital and Community Services, is turning the red house on the hospital property into a recovery clinic.

“The hospital CEO signed a 10-year lease with us so we could put all of our substance-abuse programs and emergency-service programs for people 19 and over in one location away from here, and it’s also adjacent to the emergency department,” Ms. Fay said. “We intend to have a medication clinic there so that all the medically assisted treatments will be available.” She expects to start using the building in late spring or early summer.

Finally, although it is its priority to intervene prior to a crisis, the IWYC also works with individuals and the families of adolescents who are returning from off-Island inpatient residencies.

“Before they come back, we have a whole plan in place for them that’s not just ‘Your kid is going to school from 7 am to 2 pm,” Ms. Mercier said.

“Maybe they get tutoring here for a couple of hours, see the therapist, go and work out at the YMCA, et cetera,” Ms. Fay said. “It’s a way to make the adjustment a little more palatable.”

Other community issues

IWYC services extend beyond substance abuse, however. Earlier this year, the IWYC brought Lynn Lyons, who specializes in adolescent and generational anxiety, to the Island. She held two parent workshops, and spoke to every student in the fifth through twelfth grade, as well as staff at all the Island schools. In total, she saw about 865 people over the course of four days.

The IWYC is bringing Jessica Setnick to the Island this spring to give intensive eating-disorder training to Island practitioners, clinicians, nutritionists, school nurses, and community members.

“She’s just a pioneer right now in eating disorders,” Ms. Mercier said. “From that group of 12 or 13 people who participate, they will create a network to work with young people.”

Training community members and professionals on the Island is an important step, because the number of those seeking help locally is growing. Ms. Mercier said that since the development of the IWYC, they have worked with “well over 200 families.”

“We had 205 client contacts alone just in the month of March,” she said. “On average we’re picking up between 20 and 30 families a month. It’s just been steadily growing.”

Family assistance at the IWYC varies greatly as well. The organization will team up with Island Grown Schools this spring to give family cooking demos and healthy, on-the-go meal ideas.

“Sometimes it’s just helping them find the right summer camp, afterschool activities, applying for scholarships and funding, or helping people navigate the health care system,” Ms. Mercier said. “Every day new families are coming in, and we’re figuring out how to do things for them.”

Piloting the program

The IWYC’s collaboration between the five organizations, and its accessible location, are unique to the Vineyard. Ms. Coogan said their hope is that the IWYC can be a pilot program for other communities.

A state initiative has resulted in the formation of more family resource centers across Massachusetts, but communities may still be financially restrained from providing the same scope of services. The IWYC is funded by a Tower Foundation grant, state contract, fundraisers, and private donations.

“The family resource centers that are happening around the state are a step, but they’re still not able to do all that we’re able to do because we also went out on a limb and got the private funding as well,” she said. “It’s a step, though, and I think it’s a really important step.”

Family resource centers also don’t have case managers, she said. “A family resource center off-Island may try really hard to connect with the school, and they may have a liaison, but there’s kind of a disconnect,” she said. “I think we’re really fortunate here to kind of be able to pilot this central place that connects the dots.”

She hopes the success of the IWYC will be a good example for other communities facing similar social service issues and crises. “That’s our hope,” she said. “For other people to look and say, They did it, that’s really cool, let’s try that here.”

For more information, contact the Island Wide Youth Collaborative at 508-693-7900, or visit the office at 111 Edgartown Road in Vineyard Haven.