JCC Indianapolis’ CEO Eric H. Koehler addresses gaps with support from philanthropic donors

by Shari Finnell, editor/writer, Not-for-profit News

As with most executive leaders assuming a new role, Eric H. Koehler assessed opportunities for growth when he arrived at JCC Indianapolis in 2017. One of the areas he identified was the need for mental health and related support services for the youth that the organization had been serving for decades.

“While we’re certainly running a good program, I thought we could run an excellent program by providing additional mental, emotional and social well-being support,” said Koehler, who had previously worked in numerous JCC leadership positions, including as CEO of the JCC in Stamford, Conn. “Everyone has different abilities and needs based on where they are, but we didn’t have the capacity — the deep bench that we really needed to provide that additional support.

Koehler outlined a plan to add mental health support to the campers served by the organization’s programs and started reaching out to foundations for funding support.

Although COVID-19 disrupted the timeline of the programming, the organization was able to hire a mental health and behavioral coordinator and inclusion support specialists to work at its camp programs in 2022. The hires were made possible with a gift from the Glick Foundation, and gifts from the Adams, Bell, Cotlar and Koppel families.

With its expanded offerings under the pilot program, the JCC Indianapolis joins an increasing number of nonprofit organizations that are seeking ways to support mental health needs among youth through their regular programs. 

These programs come at a time when mental health challenges among youth are reaching a crisis level, as described in a recent article published by the American Psychological Association (APA). Statistics show that demand for mental health support is far outpacing available resources.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one out of every five children in the United States had a mental health disorder prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. However, only about 20 percent of the children identified were receiving care from a mental health provider. 

Experts expect those numbers to continue to rise because of children’s experiences with trauma, disruptions and isolation caused by the pandemic. 

About 71 percent of parents responding to a national survey conducted by Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago said that the pandemic had taken a toll on their child’s mental health. Also, the CDC reported that emergency room visits related to mental health increased 24 percent for children ages 5 to 11 in 2020 and by 31 percent among youth ages 12 to 17, compared to 2019.

Introducing a new camp program

After five years of planning and pursuing funding, and navigating the disruptions caused by COVID-19, the JCC Indianapolis hosted its 2022 camp season with several noticeable changes. In addition to the MESH (Mental, Emotional and Social Health) services and peer training delivered by the new staff members, the ratio of campers to staffers and group sizes were smaller and programming was calmer, Koehler said.

In previous years, JCC Indianapolis would host the vast majority, if not all, of the families that registered for camp. This year, there was a wait list because of the desire to keep the groups small.

“That’s something we learned. If we’re going to provide a high-quality summer experience for everyone who’s involved, we can’t just provide bulk childcare,” Koehler said. “We never capped the number of campers like we did this summer.”

Koehler said there also was a noticeable difference in the tenor of the program, which offered quiet zones for overstimulated campers, in comparison to camps in previous years. For instance, the number of programs like an annual lip sync contest, which included high-energy singing and dancing, were reduced in favor of more subdued activities.

“The tone was a lot lower and calmer, which led to a more pleasant experience,” said Koehler, who anticipates that the differences in the camp program will result in higher retention among campers and counselors.

Evolving the camp experience

According to the American Camp Association, camp programs, policies and practices that incorporate MESH-focused services and training can improve the camp experience for participants by building resiliency, self-esteem and self-confidence. As a result, they also can minimize challenges for camp counselors.

When pursuing a MESH focus for JCC Indianapolis, Koehler was able to draw on his experiences in leadership roles at other JCC’s in Virginia, Connecticut and Massachusetts. 

In one JCC program, the organization offered special early childhood programs for children with serious needs from birth. The team partnered with specialists and state and county staff members to supplement their offerings. After a child turned three, the JCC would help place them in early childhood programs, Koehler said. “These were kids who had very significant needs. Some had communication issues or difficulty walking,” he said. “Our goal was to get them from point A to point B. Typically, when those children completed our program, they had significant growth so we were able to include them in our early childhood programs.”

At another JCC, the team provided a day camp program for children on the autism spectrum.  “We focused on social skills learning in the morning and in the afternoon matriculated the children into the broader camp to learn how to improve their communication skills,” Koehler said. 

While the work involved in securing the funding and establishing the MESH focus at JCC Indianapolis was challenging, Koehler said, the effort was worth it.

It’s very rewarding to be able to do this for our community, families, and staff,” he said.

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