While students get new teachers every year, some adult figures remain steady. Matthew Merrill is a mental health clinician who works with middle – and high-school students in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District. “These relationships last for years and I think for a lot of these kids, having a consistent, healthy adult figure in their life means a lot to them,” he says.

Merrill is a school-based mental health clinician working for nonprofit Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance (PVPSA), which provides mental health counseling, outpatient substance abuse services and preventive programs to students who might not otherwise have an opportunity to access professional care. The group reaches upward of 7,000 students annually. Whether through programs discouraging tobacco usage, counseling opportunities following behavioral problems at school, or substance abuse counseling after an issue is identified, PVPSA seeks to provide students with an outlet to work through their problems in a constructive manner.

“We know that children and families by nature experience tough moments in life, and we also understand the trauma that can happen in children’s lives when we don’t provide them with support when a crisis happens,” CEO Erica Padilla-Chavez says.

PVPSA’s staff of 42 includes counselors, like Merrill, who can be found on campus during school hours on scheduled days, ensuring a consistent presence in the lives of their students. Yet seeking mental health services at school is not always a feasible option. To this end, PVPSA also maintains a consistent presence at three community centers in Watsonville.

Growing Up Fast

PVPSA breaking ground on a new $3.3 million facility that will be used to accommodate the growing demand for family, mental health and substance abuse treatment services.

However, demand for services far outpaces PSPSA’s capacity, requiring them to turn down cases. Current plans call for a new facility in downtown Watsonville with construction set to begin in January. The $3.3 million project is currently 90-percent funded with $300,000 more to raise, and will allow both substance abuse and mental health counselors to operate under one roof – something Merrill says will help with the continuity of care.

Padilla-Chavez expects the new facility will translate to about a 30-percent increase in the number of clients served – which means helping more students stay in school, keep out of trouble and learn to cope with emotions. “By offering children and family early intervention and support, we can curb behaviors that will be costly down the road,” she says.

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