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MO Public Schools See Value of Community Health Workers

Community health workers in some Missouri schools help students find resources beyond school, from health services to shoes or clothing if needed. (sonja_paetow/Pixabay)
Community health workers in some Missouri schools help students find resources beyond school, from health services to shoes or clothing if needed. (sonja_paetow/Pixabay)
April 3, 2019

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. - Kids need both social and emotional tools to be successful in school, and one Missouri school district is doing its best to see that they get both.

The Eldon School District is using grant money to educate what they call the "whole child." That has meant hiring a community health worker as the "point person" to help students find outside resources they may need, from dental and health services to a pair of shoes.

Aaron Berendzen, who directs special programs in the Eldon School District, said education has moved beyond the traditional "three R's."

"We realized," he said, "that if you're sitting in class and you're thinking about your stomach grumbling, or you're thinking about the fact that your shoes don't fit, or you're thinking about a toothache that will not go away, you can't access reading, writing and arithmetic."

The community health workers work either on a volunteer basis or as employees, and in conjunction with a local hospital or health organization. Central Ozark Medical Center is providing funding for Eldon's community health workers through a rural outreach grant.

Eldon School District Superintendent Matt Davis said students who receive continuous attention have a better chance of overcoming life's hurdles.

"It doesn't matter how smart you are," he said. "If you don't have the mental toughness or the mental ability to work through some different issues, then you're going to struggle in life. And so, we think giving kids the social and emotional tools to be successful will just help them in life."

Before becoming the community health worker for Eldon schools, Meghan Opie was a teacher for 10 years. She said the health workers tend to connect with students they're helping, because they share a similar social background, life experiences or culture. Opie said she sees her role as helping end the cycle of poverty by better preparing kids who might be at risk.

"These kids would never get this otherwise," she said. "They would never get medical care, they would never get dental care - and our numbers of kids seeing our therapists in our behavioral health program are really large right now."

According to Missouri's Kids Count organization, Miller County, where the Eldon School District is located, has been increasing its high school graduation rate since 2012.

Roz Brown, Public News Service - MO