Growing up the youngest of 12 children on a Louisiana farm, Sharon Price knew the impacts of poverty on her family and neighbors. But she says she also had hope for a brighter future.
As the new executive director for the Community Action Council for Lexington-Fayette, Bourbon, Harrison and Nicholas Counties, Inc., Price now helps provide other families with hope as well as the tools they need to build better lives.
“If I can have a hand in helping anybody reach their goals – individual, family, educational, any of those things – I’m so excited about that,” says Price. “I think that that helps to strengthen the whole community for everybody.”
Price appeared on KET’s Connections to talk about the council’s education services. The program also featured Louisville therapist Damon Cobble, who explained his new Minority Mental Health Project.
Providing a ‘Pathway Out of Poverty’
The Community Action Council (CAC) serves more than 30,000 people in central Kentucky with child development, job training, housing, and other safety net services.
“They typically come to us in a crisis mode where they have a barrier that needs to be eliminated,” says Price. “So we first work with them to eliminate that barrier and then we work on setting goals with them, and we call this our pathway out of poverty.”
That pathway is different for each individual, depending on the specific needs of that person and their family. So CAC provides a range of job-training initiatives to help adults find stable employment. Price says clients can work towards a commercial drivers’ license (CDL) or a child development associate credential at no cost. Within a few weeks, she says clients can be ready to be a school bus driver with a CDL, or work in a day care, Head Start, or public school setting with the child development certification.
In terms of services geared towards children, CAC is the primary provider of the early education and nutrition program for low-income families known as Head Start. The agency has offered the program for more than 50 years, and now serves families in 19 counties. A recent $42.5 million federal grant will enable the council to expand Head Start to five additional counties in south-central Kentucky.
“Early childhood education and early intervention is the key when it comes to ensuring that children have the best chance possible at life,” she says.
Price says some parents seek help from CAC because they want their children to be prepared to enter elementary school. But she says others don’t yet understand the importance and benefits of early childhood education programs.
“Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know,” she says. “So we have experts on our staff to work with families and get them moving along in the right direction.”
Poverty isn’t the only factor that hampers the early brain development of a child. The opioid epidemic also touches Kentucky’s youngest children. Infants exposed to addictive opiate drugs while in their mother’s womb can develop neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). Some research indicates that children born with NAS are more likely to develop an educational disability as they get older.
In the past year alone, Price says the number of children that CAC serves that need special education interventions has increased two-and-a-half times. She says that’s forced her staff to adapt their programming to better serve the needs of these youngest learners.
When families have a substance use problem or other challenges beyond the scope of CAC, Price says that CAC refers people to partner organizations who can help. For example, the council works with Lexington-based Chrysalis House, which offers substance abuse treatment programs for women.
“No one agency can tackle poverty alone, so we have to have the support of a great community,” says Price.
Culturally Competent Mental Health Care
Mental health treatment may not be a top priority for individuals facing poverty, addiction, or violence. But Damon Cobble hopes to change that for families living in Louisville’s west-end neighborhoods.
Cobble is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a mental health practitioner in the Jefferson County Public Schools. He’s also the founder of the Minority Mental Health Project, which seeks to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health disorders and link people in West Louisville to culturally competent mental health service providers.
“What we need to do is address to the deep-rooted issues that have plagued our community for years instead of putting a Band-Aid over the scar on the outside,” he says.
Cobble says when black families face problems, they tend to seek help from their church or faith community. But Cobble says pastors may not be equipped to handle mental and behavioral health concerns.
“They are running into situations that are just beyond their expertise and they yearn for this help,” he says.
The new Minority Mental Health Project includes training for pastors and other church leaders on topics such as how to recognize symptoms of trauma or people at risk of suicide. Cobble also plans to connect those churches with mental health providers who can offer reduced-cost or free counseling to members of those congregations and their families.
“We’re bringing therapists to the churches, we’re bringing therapists to the community,” he says. “We don’t want our community to have to go out [to the] east end or [Indiana] to receive these services.
“We’re hoping that this will take a lot off our church leaders and allow us professionals to deal with the mental, emotional part, while allowing them to continue to do their faith or their church duties.”
The counselors who participate in the project will also be trained in an Afrocentric trauma treatment model that helps clinicians understand the historical roots of grief, anger, and internalized oppression that people of color may experience. Cobb says this type of training is important because more than 80 percent of therapists in the United States are white. He says that can create trust issues among people of color who may be reluctant to pursue counseling.
Cobble is in his sixth year as a therapist in the Jefferson County schools. He says one issue he frequently encounters is students who he describes as “parentified” – that is, older children in single-parent homes who are told to look after their younger siblings when the mother or father is away. He says the child who is put in charge at home carries that sense of responsibility with them when they leave the house.
“They really struggle to relinquish that authority,” says Cobble.
That can lead to conflicts at school or during encounters with police, according to Cobble. He says most young people simply don’t have the skills to navigate parentification along with other common life stressors like peer pressure, racial discrimination, or economic instability. That’s another reason why he says it’s important for counselors to be culturally competent so that they can understand how racial history influences the lives of people of color today.