Laurel youth counseling services offers 'helping hands'

Before Laurel-Beltsville Oasis youth services bureau closed last year, former Greenbelt Cares family counselor Rosalind Caesar said she frequently referred city residents to the facility at Laurel Lakes.

Once it shut down, Greenbelt Cares became the closest treatment center for Laurel families and their children.

“There was no service in Laurel, and when their residents would go to Greenbelt, the residents in Greenbelt got priority,” said Caesar, a licensed clinical professional counselor and national certified counselor.

The need for mental health treatment services is increasing, Caesar said, which is why she accepted the clinical director position at the city of Laurel’s new youth services bureau, Laurel Helping Hands, to kick-start programs.

“It’s not a case of, ‘Do we need it?’ It’s more of a case of, ‘How much do we need?’” Caesar said.

Located on Montgomery Street in the Laurel Armory/Anderson-Murphy Community Center, Laurel Helping Hands serves children ages 18 and younger and offers individual, family and group counseling for a variety of issues including depression, anxiety, anger management, relationship difficulties, personal growth and development.

Caesar, who was hired and began developing the program in June, said the counseling, crisis intervention and abuse and suicide intervention services are primarily available to city residents, but also serve Prince George’s County residents.

The Laurel location joins the county’s four other youth services bureaus in District Heights, Bowie, Greenbelt and College Park. Prince George’s County is providing funds to the city for Helping Hands, which is operated by city of Laurel employees.

Lorry Woods, the former director of Laurel-Beltsville Oasis, said Laurel’s first youth services bureau opened in 1973 and was administered by the Prince George’s County Health Department. Woods said most statewide bureaus began in the mid-1970s when communities started recognizing mental health needs for children.

“The need was stable, but not necessarily growing. We always had people coming in,” said Woods, who retired in 2013 – three years before the former Laurel bureau closed. “My feeling has always been that we need more of these centers all over. The county is large, the problems are vast and they’re not being addressed except for in a few places and programs.”

Schools often referred students to the former Laurel bureau, Woods said, where counselors tackled troubling issues and concerns of educators and parents. A Dispute Resolution and Managing Anger Club, known as the DRAMA club, was a popular amenity and is something Caesar has brought to Helping Hands in Laurel.

“If you wait until things have escalated, it’s much more difficult to turn things around,” Woods said. “It’s better to deal with those little problems in younger children and work with families so they have the skills necessary to perpetuate positive behaviors.”

Pamela Creekmur, a Prince George’s County health officer, said the county has worked in conjunction with mental health providers over the past three to five years to bring additional youth services and counseling to those in need. Youth services bureaus, like Helping Hands, “raise awareness” and “prioritize” mental health in the communities they serve, she said.

“Along with the state, we promote an integrated behavioral health system that is prepared to address behavioral needs for all populations,” Creekmur said. “We want children and families to be connected to community services that provide integrated care.”

Laurel-Beltsville Oasis shifted to various departments within the county government to maintain the required administrative role, Woods said, until mental health centers were privatized in the 1990s. In 2016, the bureau closed after its two main employees retired and resigned.

Offering a Helping Hand

Laurel Parks and Recreation Director Joanne Barr said the City Council, Mayor Craig Moe and District 1 County Councilwoman Mary Lehman provided the foundation for a city-based bureau to continue providing the much-needed services in Laurel. Helping Hands falls under social services within the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

“It’s such a great service to have that no one was opposed to as a budgeted item,” Barr said. However, she points out, space and funding were obstacles to overcome.

The department manages city facilities, so Barr said they found a space at the Armory that was previously used by the Greater Laurel Literacy Center tutoring service. The space is an easily accessible, yet private.

The literacy center’s offerings are mobile throughout the Armory and staff didn’t use the space on a regular basis, she said.

The standalone center received minor renovations, including new paint and furniture.

“It just seemed to fit the bill,” Barr said. “We made it usable for the number of people Rosalind will be hiring. We felt like it was a good space they could have as their own.”

A counselor, student intern and receptionist currently make up Caesar’s staff, with plans for additional hires over time.

The decision to start a new city-based program came during government budget sessions, according to Laurel Mayor Craig Moe, who said Prince George’s County will provide $113,000 over two years for start-up costs and an additional $30,000 from its Department of Family Services. A state grant from the Governor’s Office of Children will also provide roughly $64,000.

Funds were allocated for both programs and staff salaries. Moe said the city doesn’t have specific numbers regarding the bureau’s operating costs since it’s in its early stages.

“We’ll eventually work to get some other grants and the city will put some funds out,” he said. “We did a lot of research talking with other [bureaus] around the county. Several of those were very helpful and eased the concerns that we had.”

College Park Youth and Family Services was a collaborative partner, said Peggy Higgins, who has been its director since 1989. Like Laurel, the College Park bureau gets some funding from the state, and opens up its services to those living outside the municipality.

Higgins worked with Caesar to create the Laurel bureau’s structure and highlight core services, like the DRAMA club. In the College Park bureau, Higgins said counselors will visit schools and coordinate services with parents to help children struggling with emotional issues, grief and loss, divorce and domestic violence – something Caesar hopes to add to Helping Hands in the near future.

Caesar said she’s sent a proposal to Prince George’s County Public Schools to form a partnership, including Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle and Laurel High schools.

“Some kids have trouble in school because they’re unregulated and/or they have a lot of anger,” Higgins said. “Rosalind, in particular, is skilled at doing the group that helps teach youth and teens how to respond in a different way that’s more effective than lashing out.

“We estimate that in the average class, 1 in 5 students will have some mental health issues going on at any point in time,” Caesar added. “A lot of times, kids who were not doing well in school, may have things that are related to mental health that are preventing them from doing well. It’s all intertwined. We want to look at school performance.”

These services provide an outlet for children struggling with social skills to find their strengths as well. With only 19 youth services bureaus statewide, primarily in Central Maryland, Higgins said it’s crucial for families to have access to care for reasonable costs.

“If they don’t have insurance or can’t use their insurance because their deductible is so high, there really aren’t very many resources around,” she said. “I applaud Laurel. The mission is to prevent juvenile delinquency and family disruption and promote positive youth development.”

Caesar said the maximum price for a session at Helping Hands is $40, and is set by household income and size. In addition to low costs, city residents receive discounts.

“I think we’ve made a lot of progress. I feel very confident,” Caesar said. “We just need to do some more work on reaching out to the community. Some of that is going to come with time as we start rolling out the services.”

Helping Hands is open Mondays and Wednesdays, noon to 9 p.m. and Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The bureau’s DRAMA club meets Mondays through Dec. 18 from 6 to 7:45 p.m. and is open to sixth- through 12th-graders. Three parent sessions are also included.

For more information, contact Laurel Helping Hands at 301-725-9099 or LHH@laurel.md.us.

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