Building Bridges: Fort Calhoun Community Schools holds inaugural Community Mental Health and Safety Conference

Building Bridges: Fort Calhoun Community Schools holds inaugural Community Mental Health and Safety Conference

By Tyler Dahlgren

Fort Calhoun Community Schools held the inaugural Community Mental Health and Safety Conference on March 4, opening its doors for an evening event that was four years in the making.

The conference, which included a community agency fair and four rounds of breakout sessions guided by local experts in a variety of fields, was originally scheduled for March 16, 2020, also known as the “Monday the World Shut Down.” Eventually the world pulled itself out of the pandemic, but those uncertainty-filled years only further illustrated many of the reasons the district decided to put on such a conference in the first place.

Special education director Ashley Dougherty and junior high counselor Jacque Fischer decided to dust off the blueprint. FCCS administration was all for it, and on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the district held a mental health day for its staff, bringing in many of the same resources that attended the community conference.

“Ashley and Jacque brought an idea that died several years ago back to life,” said superintendent Jerry Green. “Following up the mental health day we had for staff, seeing how that benefited them, and then wrapping in the community, it was just such a great idea and an important topic. It was an easy decision for us.”

Community engagement was the primary goal of the conference’s organizers, who wrote and received grant money through ESU 3’s Region 6 Behavioral Healthcare. The event was well-attended, with more than 25 booths in the agency fair and 15 different session presenters.

“We know that we have services in school for the kids, and we have to make sure that we make an impact in the community as well,” said Dougherty. “That’s the only way we’re really going to change things and build awareness around mental health.”

The conference was comprehensive in the topics it touched. There were sessions on everything from anxiety and depression to digital safety, suicide prevention and drug awareness. Organizers used results from a survey they sent out to staff before the mental health day in January to map out the night. 

Everyone they reached out to was more than happy to be involved. It’s important for FCCS, Dougherty explained, to serve as a bridge into its community and the resources available in the area.

“I think if you can bring people in from our community and put them in touch with these agencies, it’s a worthwhile effort,” said Dougherty. “If there’s just one resource they can use to help themselves or they can refer to a family or another student, even if we’ve made an impact on just one student, or helped one family expand their options when they’re looking for options, then it’s worth it.”

Molly Woodman is the outreach coordinator for Omaha-based The Kim Foundation, who had a booth at the conference. Woodman, who held two sessions on suicide prevention and intervention in youth, had gotten to know Fischer through her involvement in the Metro Area Suicide Prevention Coalition, which The Kim Foundation organizes. 

Partnership is key, Woodman said, especially in this line of work. The wider the web of resources, the better.

“It was important for us to be there because we just want to keep building that partnership with Fort Calhoun Community Schools,” Woodman said. “We want to be able to provide any kind of suicide prevention education we can. We want them to be involved, to bring kids to our Youth Summit. We want them to take part in anything that we have. And, even though we’re housed in Omaha, we strive to provide service to all of Nebraska.”

The purpose of the conference was to open eyes, Green said. It’s amazing the mental health resources that are out there, both in Washington County and across the Omaha metro, and it’s a little startling how many people there are who don’t know about them. 

“I had people ask early on, ‘What is the audience you’re shooting for?’” said Dougherty. “And I said ‘Everyone. Invite everyone.’ Our mindset was ‘Get anybody we can get in the door, because that’ll get the ball moving on raising mental health awareness and education.’ We hoped that the conference could help to just start a conversation, even for the parents, and they can start a conversation with their kids and just open the door."

Green received positive feedback from the conference at a school board meeting the next week. It’s something the district definitely plans on hosting again.

“Any education that we can provide for the community about the resources that are out there, about how just because you walk through the door doesn’t mean you have a label on you, we’re going to do that,” said Green. “Our goal is to take care of people in our community. We’re going to continue to set the bar high, and we’re going to raise it as well.”

For Woodman, those words are more than a breath of fresh air. They’re a beacon of hope, and a sign of how far society’s come in the quest to destigmatize mental health and wellness.

“Seeing what schools are trying to do to elevate their students and their mental health and making it a priority is so wonderful, because the more we can get people to talk about it, the more normal it becomes,” Woodman said. “We don’t hide a broken arm. We don’t hide the fact that we’re taking an antibiotic for an ear infection. We don’t hide that, especially in the school system. You always know when somebody has a bandage or isn’t feeling well, and that’s not their fault. That’s something that’s happening physically. Well, this is something that happens mentally, and it’s not their fault either. The more we talk about it and make it okay to talk about, the better. I love that schools are taking the lead on that.”

There were four primary sponsors for the conference in Scooter’s Coffee, Washington County Bank, Zig Drywall and Memorial Community Hospital & Health Systems, who also provided a free pizza dinner for attendees. 

“Our sponsors are all very supportive about community mental health, and about the conference itself,” said Fischer. “We even had some presenters that saw our flier and reached out to us because they believed their topics were important to express to the community.”

Fischer said her sentiment rings true for Fort Calhoun’s administration, too. 

“Things like this are easy here, because we have so much support behind us,” she said. “That’s one thing that I love about what I’m doing, is being supported fully by the administration.”

For 30 years, Green has worked for Fort Calhoun Community Schools. He knows this is a special place, and he knows March 4th was a special night.

“We’re going to give you a high education, because we have high expectations, but our number one priority is to take care of our students and our families,” Green said. “If we can’t do that, if we don’t have healthy staff and if we don’t have healthy students and families, education is not going to be there.”