Students Reap the Benefits of New Holyoke Collaboration

The feelings seeped into many psyches during the pandemic: Fear. Isolation. Anxiety. Difficulty concentrating. Screen fatigue. Loss.

Imagine being a child battling those same emotions.

It hasn’t been easy, according to River Valley Counseling Center’s Director of Holyoke Outpatient Services Chassity Crowell-Miller, a licensed independent clinical social worker (LICSW). 

She said, “Children go to school to learn, but there’s lot of social learning that takes place there, too. And school was shut down so quickly! We saw increased rates of depression and anxiety from the isolation. Kids were scared. Many were experiencing loss—they lost loved ones to COVID or they were in homes watching family members ill from that. And it was very challenging to learn remotely from home…Parents’ anxiety increased, too, trying to figure out how to meet their children’s needs.”

A child takes part in the remote learning pod program at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Holyoke. [Photo courtesy of the Boys & Girls Club]
A child takes part in the remote learning pod program at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Holyoke. Photo courtesy of the Boys & Girls Club

Pre-COVID, through River Valley’s partnership with Holyoke schools, students could get counseling right at their schools. According to Crowell-Miller, the arrangement was ideal: therapists could intervene for young people “in the moment,” teachers and therapists could easily team up, and students had no transportation barriers to get counseling.

That spirit of collaboration and a “can-do” attitude re-emerged during the pandemic thanks to River Valley and the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Holyoke. COVID-19 Response Fund grants from the Community Foundation targeting mental health helped pave the way for them to create new supports.

When schools closed, the Club opened its doors to students to take part in remote learning pods. Mindful of the emotional challenges facing children, River Valley jumped at the chance to embed one of its seasoned social workers, Brandon, right at the Club.

“The Club’s pods addressed the inequities experienced by Holyoke families lacking internet access, and also helped many single parents who were having to choose between their jobs and taking care of their kids,” Crowell-Miller said. The Club even offered food to-go for families. “We realized the only needs not being met were mental health concerns,” she added.

Brandon built relationships with children at the Club, formed small groups on the fly to teach social skills, stepped in to de-escalate tensions, and worked with educators to manage mental health concerns, too.

Eileen Cavanaugh, president/CEO of the Club, said, “The partnership with River Valley allows us to focus on an organization-wide movement towards incorporating social emotional learning into everything we do. We are excited to provide an extra layer of support for both kids and our staff and to continue helping youth reach their full potential as productive, caring, and responsible citizens.”

While schools have re-opened in Holyoke, the young people attending the Club’s after school programs are still benefitting from the River Valley connection.

“COVID may have brought this program together,” said Crowell-Miller, “but I think it’s going to stick around. Other Boys & Girls Clubs or YMCAs may eventually model it because it’s an amazing service.”