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Juneau residents use mental health budget as platform to advocate for schools

Posted: March 5, 2014 - 1:04am
In a standing room only House Finance Committee room, Yaakoosge Daakahidi Alternative High School seniors Dalton Wells, left, and Sariah Wilson, center, Career Guide Kristi Smith, give testimony in favor of money spent on the Department of Labor's Youth First Grant program on Tuesday.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
In a standing room only House Finance Committee room, Yaakoosge Daakahidi Alternative High School seniors Dalton Wells, left, and Sariah Wilson, center, Career Guide Kristi Smith, give testimony in favor of money spent on the Department of Labor's Youth First Grant program on Tuesday.

Penn Lamb is doing pretty well for a 19-year-old living on her own while finishing high school. In addition to paying rent, she pays the rest of her bills and owns a car.

But things haven’t always been this way for the Yaakoosgé Daakahídi High School senior.

Lamb left home at 17 to get away from her abusive father who had a drug problem. For about a year-and-a-half, she slept over with friends or spent her nights on Juneau’s streets.

That changed about two months ago thanks to a state-funded grant program slated to be cut from next year’s budget.

“Teachers like Kristi Smith whose job is funded by the Alaska Youth First Grant got me off the floors of other people’s homes,” Lamb told the House Finance Committee Tuesday. “The life I live right now could not have happened without the Alaska Youth First Grant — without it youth like me could not make it in the state I call home.”

Now, she is on track to graduate from YDHS, and she plans to go to law school. Lamb smiled as she talked about her future plans.

“I’m very excited,” she said after testifying.

Lamb’s comments came as the finance committee heard nearly five hours of testimony on funding for the state’s mental health programs. According to the latest text available for HB267, the appropriations bill covering mental health, the measure includes $245 million for a wide range of programs including the Alaska Pioneer Homes, Juvenile Justice and suicide prevention.

Mental health is a perennial hot topic in Alaska, which has the highest suicide rate in the United States and significant substance abuse rates.

Lamb was one of many Juneau youths who urged representatives to keep the $2.4 million Youth First grant in the budget.

Her comments came during a 90-minute window when the committee asked Juneau residents to offer their opinions on the mental health budget’s recommendations. Other communities had similar opportunities to testify by phone.

After the Juneau portion of testimony, Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, told the Empire that reinstating the grant is one of his top priorities in the budget.

“Cutting career counselors, cutting teachers and then cutting another program of career counselors is the wrong way to go if you want to create an economy that works,” Gara said.

The Anchorage lawmaker drew a link between the youth grant and the ongoing education funding debate. If the state “rips this program apart,” he said, it would leave the education system in “shambles” because the state has not increased per-student funding in three years.

Carin Smolin, the career and technical education coordinator for the Juneau School District, said the Alaska Youth First Grant is the sole funding for the career counseling position at YDHS.

“We’re operating on a shoestring,” Smolin said. “Yaakoosgé doesn’t have anything if that grant doesn’t come through. … Every kid needs career guidance, and these kids need it even more so,” she added.

Juneau School Board members Lisa Worl and Andi Story urged the committee to consider increased education funding as the district works on finalizing its budget for next year this month.

“I have seen first-hand the disheartening impacts the years of flat-funding have had on our schools and our students,” Worl said, adding that the district is looking at 135 positions lost in recent years due to the flat-funded BSA — about 34 of those positions are proposed cuts in this budget.

“The loss of these positions represents not only a loss for our district, but a loss for our community,” Worl said. “We’re having to make reductions to programs that help our underperforming students.”

In addition to the Alaska Youth First Grant, Juneau residents focused their attention on state contributions to residential substance abuse programs like Bartlett Regional Hospital’s Rainforest Recovery Center.

The Finance committee’s Health and Human Services subcommittee proposed cutting just over $1 million from the Residential Substance Abuse Treatment Program and moving another $1 million from residential services to outpatient services.

Jen Brown, director of the Rainforest Recovery Center at Bartlett, is fighting the proposal, which would cause the center to re-evaluate its residential program.

“We would have to look hard at making service adjustments,” Brown said of the realities should the state funding be cut off. “The worst-case scenario is we would have to look at cutting residential services.”

The program has 16 slots for patients, and there are 19 individuals on a waiting list to complete the 28-day program.

Brown added that outpatient treatment doesn’t work for everyone, and that there is a place for residential treatment.

“Treatment is not a one-size-fits-all approach,” she said.

Lawmakers heard numerous success stories from Alaskans from Juneau and across the state urging them to keep funding allocated for residential programs.

Dr. John Pappenheim, the medical director of Bartlett’s in-patient mental health program, told lawmakers that any money saved in the short-term by these cuts would ultimately be lost due to the effects of the addictions.

“Whatever money that is saved will be spent several times over,” Pappenheim told the committee. After the meeting, he said, “lack of successful treatment for people with a substance use disorder leads to frequently incarceration, homelessness, worsening medical conditions and a lack of employment.”

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