JOPLIN — The focus of a mental health program established in the Joplin school district after the devastating May 2011 tornado will change this year, but officials said the need for the services remains.
In the months immediately after the tornado, the district established a partnership with the Ozark Center, a branch of Freeman Health System, to serve 2,200 students and staff members dealing with tornado-related trauma, according to manager Renee White.
The next year, the school district took over the program, renamed it Project Hope, and hired 15 mental health professionals and counselors to work with students showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, White said. And two behavioral specialists worked with teachers and trained staff members to respond to traumatized children.
The team, which is now 11 staff members, anticipates serving fewer than 1,000 students during the coming year, White said. They will continue to look for students in extreme stress but the focus will change to resiliency and teaching methods to help students prepare for any future trauma, The Joplin Globe reported.
"What we're trying to do is impact all teachers and students and families with stronger coping skills as we move forward," she said.
Superintendent C.J. Huff said about 3,000 students — more than one-third of the district's student population — were in the direct path of the tornado when it devastated the city.
"We had a lot of kids experience a lot of things that we as adults would have a hard time understanding," he said.
One of the biggest challenges expected to test the district's resiliency this year could come in December, when two new elementary schools open, White said.
"As those kiddos go back into those buildings, there will be psychological needs that need to be addressed because everybody knows why they've been in a temporary building — it's because of the tornado," she said.
Chris Parks, a mental health counselor at Joplin High School, said he expects to primarily address problems such as drugs, alcohol or family problems, instead of lingering tornado problems.
"The biggest focus that's happening right now is we're moving past the tornado," he said. "Now it's about preparing kids for their lives ahead (and) graduation. Our emphasis this year is we're going to push hard on the kids that are struggling academically and emotionally."
The program has been funded for two years largely through grants. Administrators are seeking an extended grant from the U.S. Department of Education to fund it for at least another year.