Vashon Youth & Family Services (VYFS), the island’s largest social service provider, served nearly one-third more people last year than it had the year before, an increase that is part of a multi-year trend.
For five years in a row, VYFS has seen double-digit increases in clients and program participants, said Kathleen Johnson, the executive director of the organization, who noted the agency has recently finished evaluating last year’s statistics. VYFS provides an array of services, including counseling, chemical dependency treatment, a childcare program, family support, parent coaching and emergency services for some of the island’s lowest-income residents. Nearly all areas of the agency have seen growth in recent years, Johnson said. The reasons for the increase stem from both economic times and from foundational work VYFS has done in the community.
“In part it reflects the impact of the recession and the weak recovery,” she said. “It also results from the work of the agency in building awareness on the island and partnerships that have helped us grow our capacity to meet the need.”
At the same time VYFS has served increasing numbers of people, income from a variety of funding agencies, such as King County and the United Way, has dropped off considerably. In fact, Johnson said, between 2008 and 2012, private and foundation contributions dropped by 41 percent. Donations were up again in 2013 — including $40,000 from the community during the December appeal — and provided support at a crucial time, Johnson said.
“The last five years have been really challenging,” she added.
Jeffrey Zheutlin, who has worked at the agency for 21 years and now heads both the mental health and addiction treatment divisions, recently spoke to the growth in the agency’s mental health services. In 2013, he said, the mental health counselors at VYFS provided more than 6,300 sessions, up nearly 30 percent from 2012.
He attributes that increase, in part, to the fact that seeking mental health care carries less of a stigma than it used to, so people are less hesitant to seek it. And, he noted, last year was a difficult year on Vashon. Several young people died, leading many islanders to seek professional support.
“There is just a lot of grief,” he added.
The agency now has 20 counselors, Zheutlin said, and eight of them this year are interns. He began the intern program eight years ago, and that program has grown considerably, too. The interns are unpaid, Zheutlin noted, and provide a way for the agency to offer more mental health care than it would be able to otherwise.
“There is not enough money to do the things we do,” he said.
In fact, Johnson said, only one-fifth of the agency’s mental health clients had private insurance last year, with nearly half covered by Medicaid and the remaining 30 percent paying on their own, typically on a sliding scale. Those percentages will shift this year, Johnson said, because of the Affordable Care Act.
While growth is happening throughout much of VYFS, its Family Education and Support Services, which operates the PlaySpace, saw a considerable increase in the number of people it served last year. In 2012, it expanded its programming thanks to the Community Prevention and Wellness Initiative grant it received in partnership with the Vashon Alliance to Reduce Substance Abuse. While the PlaySpace initially served families with children from birth to age 6, the grant allowed it to provide resources for parents and guardians with children up to age 18, ranging from parenting classes to targeted support services for at-risk youth. Last year — the first full year of its funding from the grant — the agency reached 76 percent more people with its programs: parenting classes, play groups, coaching sessions and support services for at-risk kids and their families, according to Lori Means, the Family Education and Support Services director.
Experts believe that to establish positive parenting as a cultural norm, 20 percent of the population needs to be reached with parent education information. Means said they are getting close to this target.
“We had 607 in family education programs out of a population of 11,000,” she said. “We are just at that number, and that excites me.”
In the PlaySpace playgroups, intended to foster wellness in families with young children, Means said, participants have grown dramatically, from 163 in 2011 to 250 in 2013. The constellation of parenting classes for families with older children has grown as well, with two new classes added to the roster in the past year, including one that parents can take online.
The grant that funds the programs aims at reducing substance use and other harmful behaviors in middle and high school, and while some substance abuse numbers have been decreasing for 10 years, it will be a few more years before it will be clear if current efforts are having an effect.
A little over a third of those who participate in the Family Education and Support Services programs fall into low or very low income categories, and accordingly, Means said, they offer all their programs on a sliding scale basis.
“The inability to pay is never a barrier,” she said.
In other areas of the agency, VIVA, which provides emergency services to the islanders with the lowest incomes, served 12 percent more people in 2013 than in 2012, and the childcare program Vashon Kids served 7 percent more children, Johnson said.
With all this growth, VYFS is outgrowing its home near the Vashon High School, and space can be hard to come by, Johnson said; counselors sometimes work weekends and evenings, and some meet with clients in space that VYFS rents inexpensively from the Methodist Church. While Johnson said the agency’s current office will remain the headquarters, staff would appreciate additional safe, affordable space.
“We’re always looking for other opportunities,” she said.
An area of the agency that has not seen as much growth as anticipated is the Outpatient Addiction Recovery Services (OARS) program, which provides chemical dependency and addiction treatment for both teens and adults.
The program was restructured in July, and Johnson said they continue to do outreach and networking to make sure people know that services are available on the island, and they will continue to evaluate the services they provide in this area.
“We look at every single program and compare it to the need,” Johnson said. “If there is a (financial) deficit, we could turn to the community and ask for support.”
Looking ahead through 2014, Johnson said she expects to see more growth at the agency this year, though she believes it will level off. In part, further growth is expected because more people will have coverage for needed services through the Affordable Care Act, but questions remain.
“The change in the ACA is huge. We are losing support in some areas and gaining it in others,” she said.
Johnson also noted that the agency is working hard to make sure it gets reimbursed for services it provides, particularly concerning Medicaid reimbursements.
“We are turning over every stone we can. This is not a time to be lax about asking for everything we are entitled to and using it wisely,” she said. “That’s going on in every corner of the agency.”
Additionally, Johnson said, while community support is vital to VYFS, she will continue to reach out to funding sources off-island and advocate for islanders’ needs, which are sometimes not evident to those on the mainland.
“We are focused on making sure this agency has a robust and diverse funding stream,” she said.