JONESPORT — A TREE grows in Washington County.
TREE, or Transforming Rural Experiences in Education, is “a collaborative educational initiative in rural Maine to create supportive learning environments where all children, especially those challenged by adversity, stress and trauma can succeed and thrive,” according to program literature.
In other words, said TREE Director Brittany Ray, the program aims to address how trauma, adversity and stress can affect learning.
Those traumas may include poverty, hunger, abuse or neglect.
“Everybody walks through the door with something,” said Ashley Cirone, who serves as a TREE coach at Jonesport Elementary School. “How often have we been told to leave your personal life at home?”
“The tough things that happen in childhood can impact learning,” Ray said.
The program, founded in 2015 as a division of the Cobscook Community Learning Center in Trescott, is funded by grants and donations.
Researchers at Colby College and the University of Maine are part of the program.
TREE provides its two participating elementary schools — Jonesport and Milbridge — with a full-time coach and on-site access to mental health services. Cirone’s counterpart in Milbridge is Laura Thomas.
The coaches support students and school staff and coordinate with outside agencies and the community. They also run small on-site food pantries and clothing exchanges that are open to everyone, regardless of need.
Mental health services are provided by four professionals in private practice who devote a couple days a week to one of the schools. Their presence has reduced wait times and ensured children in need of services get them without the typical barriers associated with transportation, scheduling or cost, Ray said.
The best part, however, is that having the counselors in school is reducing stigma.
“Anyone can go into that room. It’s not just for certain people,” Ray said.
Likewise, the stigmas associated with food pantries and the clothing exchanges are dissipating. Ray said she realized this when Jazmin, 15, a student at Narraguagus Junior/Senior High School, felt comfortable enough to help herself to a granola bar from one of the school food pantries after school.
“You can’t tell who needs the food pantry and who doesn’t. It’s for everybody,” Ray said.
TREE was loosely modeled after a New York City program founded to assess the impacts of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. What the effort uncovered has universal meaning.
“Trauma in childhood had actually changed the structure and the functioning of the brain,” Ray said. “The good news is this is not permanent. It can be repaired with the right supports.”
Through focus groups with Washington County teachers, administrators, parents and students, TREE determined what was needed most.
“The thing that came through loud and clear was [a need for] mental health counseling services in school,” Ray said.