From a bank in Southwest Kansas to becoming ESU 17's first mental health provider, Stephanie Fling's journey is a rewarding whirlwind

From a bank in Southwest Kansas to becoming ESU 17's first mental health provider, Stephanie Fling's journey is a rewarding whirlwind

By Tyler Dahlgren

The story of ESU 17’s first mental health provider starts at a family-owned bank in Southwest Kansas.

Before her move to the foot of Nebraska's Sandhills, that’s where Stephanie Fling worked. Throughout her career, though, she couldn’t shake the inclination to pursue a career shift into education. 

More specifically, into mental health work.

Six years ago, a life shift happened, and Fling moved to Ainsworth to be closer to her sister, her three children in tow. She searched for a job to bridge the gap, something flexible so that she could spend more time with the kiddos while they were young.

ESU 17 had an opening for an administrative assistant. 

“It sounded like something that I could do while being fully present with my kids,” Fling said.

And it was. Fling spent the time she seeked with her children, who, eventually, grew up. Again and again, the inclination came knocking on her door.

When the time was right, Fling answered.

“My kids were older, and I just got to thinking, ‘Now seems like a good time to get my masters,’” Fling said. “I just started pursuing mental health like I had always wanted to.”

With mental health initiatives being implemented across her new state, the timing couldn’t have been better. As the last remaining service unit in Nebraska without licensed mental health providers, the timing was right for ESU 17, too. Fling had been working in the office long enough for the staff there to know not only her character, but her capabilities, too.

“My boss, Geraldine (Erickson), really bent over backwards to get the paperwork done and do everything she needed to do as an agency to become approved, to host my practicum and to get me in contact with a network of other mental health providers in the state,” Fling explained. “She’s been really instrumental.”

Fling, who will receive her masters in social work from the University of Kentucky in December of 2023, says she was drawn to mental health work naturally. Her dad is a pastor. Her mom is a retired teacher. Service to others is something she grew up in.

“I’ve always had an interest in it with both my parents being really service-oriented,” Fling said. “I was given a lot of life’s lessons about how we treat people and how to be emotionally attentive and what emotional intelligence is without ever being aware that that’s what was happening.”

Banking didn’t do anything to diminish that hankering. If anything, it provided perspectives that only served as reaffirmation.

“You get glimpses of what other people’s lives are like and the struggles they’re facing,” she said. “And then, of course, when you are working in the school system, you can see a lot more of that and just the nuance of every individual family and everyone coming together in a system.”

As schools started to implement PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions Support), Fling saw an opportunity. She believed in herself, believed that she could be effective and make a difference in this world.

“It’s the old, cliche question, ‘What’s your life calling?’, right?” she continued. “I felt like this was something that I could make my life’s calling.”

The climb from administrative assistant to mental health provider does feel like a whirlwind. When Fling thinks about the work she’s doing today, she can’t help but shake her head and smile. She had tools that she thought might translate well to the school setting. She bet on herself, and she won.

Fling thinks others out there can, too.

“Get involved with your local schools, because you really don’t know how much of a need there is until you’re present,” she said. “And if your skills are useful in any way, offer them to the school, because schools make great partners. They are there for the development and growth of students and if you have something to offer, they’re probably going to jump on it.”

The transition, from working solely in the ESU 17 offices to the schools they serve, has been smooth. Mental health providers at other ESUs have shown her the ropes, and done so with compassion and understanding.

“This field isn’t competitive,” Fling explained. “Nobody has any territory they’re protective of. Everybody just wants to work together to serve students the best they can. It’s a really cool atmosphere. Everybody wants you to get better and they’re rooting for you.”

The career shift has been as invigorating as Fling imagined it’d be. 

“When I’m going to bed at night, I’m still excited about the kids that I’m going to see the next day,” she said.

In addition to Ainsworth Community Schools, ESU 17 serves Cody-Kilgore Unified Schools, Keya-Paha County Schools, Rock County Public Schools and Valentine Community Schools. Sometimes, at the end of a session a student will say something like “Man, I wish we had more time together.” Or, they’ll text her a message like “Hey, you’re going to be there tomorrow, right?” Stuff like that, it keeps the fire burning.

“It means a lot to them that I’m there and they know that I try really hard to be consistent, to be there for them,” Fling said. “Some of the little, tiny interactions, the little things they say, they have no idea how meaningful that is to me.”

Fling continues to learn. For mental health workers, it can be near impossible to leave work at work. Most of the time, it’s coming home with you, but Fling tries to keep a positive mindset when that happens. She focuses on the decisions she made that day that will ultimately help a student, no matter how difficult they were.

“When people want and need help, being somebody that can offer it is pretty powerful,” Fling said.

Walking into the world of education has been eye-opening, too. She’s learned what it really means to educate the whole child, and she’s been wildly impressed by how seriously Nebraska takes aim at doing so.

“We’re not just teaching math and English and doing science projects,” she continued. “They’re learning coping skills and life skills and social-emotional skills. They’re learning how to organize their life and how to prepare to go out into the world as adults. It’s really just such a cool opportunity to be a part of that.”

A lifelong Kansan, Fling was also surprised by Nebraska’s beauty. To the west of Ainsworth, a small town along Highway 20 in the north central part of the state, sits the scenic Sandhills. It’s a breath of fresh air. Land as vast as the future in front of her.

“I am excited for the future, and excited for my students,” Fling said. “I know some of them are going to do great, big, awesome things and I know some of them are going to live the life they want. The life that makes them content and happy.”

And knowing she can have a hand in that?

“That’s the coolest thing ever.”