Clark County nonprofit that helps children with mental health issues thrive

There are more than 30 million children living in low-income households in the United States, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty.

Children living in poverty are two to three times more likely to develop a mental health disorder than other children, which means that 40% of American children are at high risk of developing a mental health disorder.

One way to improve the long-term mental health prospects of children is to provide them with reliable support and companionship.

A local nonprofit is doing just that and expanding beyond Clark County.

Super Life Mentoring uses trained community volunteers as mentors to strengthen the mental health conditions of children from low-resource households. The program pairs highly trained volunteers with children who are referred to the program by organizations such as the Clark County Department of Community Services. Once a mentor is matched with a child, they provide support and spend quality time with them for a year and usually longer.

The program was created in 2000 as a partnership between the Clark County Department of Community Services, Columbia River Mental Health Services and other behavioral health care providers in Clark County. For the past two decades, Columbia River Mental Health has acted as the program’s apex organization.

Today, thanks to extensive research demonstrating the positive results of the program, several organizations and donors have provided funds to establish the program as a self-sustaining nonprofit.

The organization became fully independent on Jan. 1, and now executive director and founder Elizabeth Higley is looking to replicate the organization’s model beyond Clark County.

Documented positive results

For approximately 15 years, Great Life Mentoring has been documenting its results to improve its model and demonstrate its effectiveness.

“In the field of mental health, evidence of impact is critical,” Higley said. “I developed a research element within Great Life Mentoring early on, and that was to help support the organization, because there are good ideas everywhere, but that’s only if you have evidence. impact that you can sustain your model.”

Higley’s long-term goal was to replicate it as an evidence-based practice in communities across the country. Refining the quality of the program through research is an important part of achieving this, Higley said.

“We are now in this exciting time of moving to a deeper level of research and model replication,” she said. “It’s all part of why all parties involved in the long term decided that Great Life Mentoring becoming its own non-profit organization was what was going to be in the model’s best interest for this replication.”

In 2014, Great Life Mentoring partnered with the University of Washington and the University of Illinois at Chicago to conduct preliminary studies on the effectiveness of their program. Universities became interested because Great Life’s volunteer retention rate was 98%. The national average volunteer retention rate for similar programs is 45%.

“They wanted to know, ‘What does Great Life Mentoring do that leads to twice the retention rate of any other mentoring program?’ said Higley.

Additionally, mentors with Great Life Mentoring stay with the children they are matched with for an average of four years, while the national average for similar programs is about 16 months, Higley said.

Preliminary studies have shown that children who participated in the Great Life Mentoring program use mental health services more later in life compared to children who did not participate in the program.

The studies concluded that the Great Life Mentoring model was an ideal candidate for scaling up, Higley said.

Grants and Donors

Following the results of these studies, the Wood Next Fund – the philanthropy of technology innovator and Roku founder Anthony Wood and his wife, Susan – funded a five-year randomized controlled trial to be implemented on Great Life Mentoring by the University of Illinois Chicago starting this year.

Over the next five years, university researchers will study the impact of Great Life Mentoring on the mental health of young people from low-income families. This research will inform the organization as it begins to expand outside of Clark County.

“At the time the research is complete, we will implement the results of this research prior to the full release of Great Life Mentoring on a larger scale,” Higley said.

The organization has already begun to expand outside of Clark County. He recently moved his offices from Columbia River Mental Health Services in Vancouver to downtown Portland.

The Firstenburg Foundation, Community Foundation for Southwest Washington, and Mentor Washington also provided grants to help the organization transition to becoming a standalone nonprofit.

“We also had over 100 new donors who provided over $100,000 to make the change,” Higley said. “Having that kind of community support is so inspiring. This work is great for kids, mentors and everyone involved. We get to see the best in people.

Looking forward

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, the mentors were unable to meet the children in person and they provided all the support they could by phone and videoconference. As the pandemic spread, more volunteers started joining the program than ever before.

“We actually had a surplus of people willing to volunteer, and that’s very unusual,” Higley said. Today, the organization has 57 volunteer mentors.

“I am pleased to report that all of the mentors who joined Great Life Mentoring during the pandemic were supported and tracked through their initial one-year engagement,” Higley said.

Holy Redeemer Catholic Church provided funds to Great Life Mentoring to host a celebratory event at Oaks Amusement Park in Portland in May. At the event, many mentors and children participating in the program will reconnect in person for the first time since the pandemic began.

“Mentors and kids will have this day of freedom, stress free,” Higley said.

Higley is also looking forward to reconnecting with mentors and kids at the event.

“I love what I do,” she said. “I don’t see the children much anymore, because I did this behind-the-scenes administrative work. When we have an event and I see the kids, it’s so exciting for me. It’s great to spend quality time with them.


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