JENNINGS • For many youths living in poverty in Jennings, access to free health care and mental health services used to require a 10-mile journey to a row house in the Central West End called the SPOT.
The free clinic, operated by the Washington University School of Medicine, connects at-risk youths, ages 13 to 24, with medical and behavioral health services. The SPOT, short for Supporting Positive Opportunities with Teens, also seeks to increase contraception use and reduce sexually transmitted diseases.
But for many teens, the appeal is deeper: The SPOT helps them build relationships with a medical staff who know their names and understand they may have histories of trauma.
For years, more teens from Jennings than anywhere else in the region were traveling to the clinic.
Then, Dr. Sarah Garwood, one of SPOT’s pediatricians, came up with an ambitious idea to bring the clinic’s services directly to those youths at their own high school.
On Thursday, administrators and physicians held an open house to mark the one-year anniversary of that project, which placed a SPOT clinic inside Jennings High School last March.
So far, more than 200 student referrals have been made by staff for students to receive services from a pediatrician, a case manager and a therapist supported by the St. Louis County Children’s Service Fund.
Now, clinic leaders say, students are coming on their own because of positive word-of-mouth among their peers.
“We’ve seen more teens who are willing to be more open and involved about health care and their own health and well-being,” said Jennings schools Superintendent Tiffany Anderson.
And that also helps faculty and staff.
“The message we want to give them is that we’re here with services to make their job with the students easier,” Garwood said.
Filling a need
Jennings High School sits in one of the poorest areas of north St. Louis County in a ZIP code that has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the region.
When Garwood came up with the idea two years ago for a Jennings High clinic, she already had a connection. The high school’s athletic director is her brother-in-law, and her sister had previously taught in the district. That led to an introduction to Anderson.
Anderson said the timing was perfect. The school district was already seeking a permanent on-campus health provider as part of Anderson’s plan to offer a broad range of services for students and families in the district.
At the time, students with serious illnesses were going untreated, sexually transmitted diseases were an issue, and there was a need for accessible contraception given the high teen pregnancy rate in the area.
All of those issues were affecting attendance, school behavior and graduation rates, Anderson said.
In addition, student athletes had neither access nor money to get their required annual physicals.
So Jennings was footing the bill to bus athletes to a Walgreens Take Care clinic to get the checkups. Now, those services are available at the SPOT.
The clinic is only the second in the region to be embedded in a high school, and the first to offer full primary care and behavioral services on-site. The other clinic operates in Roosevelt High School in St. Louis in partnership with Mercy Health, and provides basic health care and referrals, but not contraception.
At first, the majority of the referrals to the Jennings SPOT location were for behavioral issues related to stress, depression and other mental health issues attributed to growing up in poverty. Students at Jennings typically come from households struggling with bills, loss of utilities, housing insecurity and neighborhood violence, Anderson said. The nearby unrest in Ferguson had created additional stress for students.
The SPOT’s clinical case manager Rochelle Moore tracks students who come to the clinic and links them to health care providers, but she also works to connect parents and students with other services, including signing them up for Medicaid.
“Just helping them navigate the medical health care system has been key,” Anderson said.
Garwood said Moore is a key partner in the students’ everyday well-being. On Moore’s watch, it’s OK for teachers to refer students to the clinic for some time to cool down. There’s a sunny alcove in the SPOT where students are encouraged to de-stress. The staff views the SPOT as a safe space for students who have dealt with significant trauma in their lives.
To that end, Garwood has obtained a three-year $60,000 grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health to make Jennings the first fully “trauma informed” school district in the region.
Last week, freshman Kayla Murphy, 16, came to the SPOT with a note from her English teacher. Murphy said she was having trouble with a peer that day and needed a place to settle down and work on a project involving “Romeo and Juliet.”
Murphy had been coming to the SPOT on and off for most of the year. Staff members were helping her cope with grief after her mom died last year on the day of her eighth-grade graduation, she said.
“It feels good to come here and get all that pressure off of you,” she said. “I wasn’t really expecting a place like this.”
The clinic is further scaling up on the physical health side. Beyond basic checkups and vaccines, physicians also deal with chronic illnesses and medication management.
Last fall, senior Payton Robinson, 17, said she made her way from the gym to the SPOT on the advice of her basketball coach. Despite being diagnosed with lupus years ago, she hadn’t had consistent medical care. Robinson said she’d been dealing with her condition with the best attitude she could, but it sometimes got her down. Now she has steady medical care to manage her condition.
At the open house Thursday, visitors got a tour of the clinic. Design work for the space was donated by St. Louis architect Anna Ives after Garwood sought her help. The two exam tables came to the clinic via a U-Haul rented by Garwood after she procured them from a former WU pediatric facility with the help of two strong cousins.
Anderson said she envisions the SPOT as a resource for much of North County. The school district has already opened it to students from Riverview Gardens and Normandy school districts for physicals and other basic services.
“It makes sense we can make the services available and accessible since there are not clinics or access for these districts,” she said.
READ ABOUT A FOSTER HOME OPERATED BY THE JENNINGS DISTRICT.
READ MORE ABOUT SUPERINTENDENT ANDERSON AND IMPROVMENTS AT JENNINGS.
READ THE POST-DISPATCH SPECIAL REPORT: “THE CRISIS WITHIN: HOW TOXIC STRESS AND TRAUMA ENDANGER OUR CHILDREN”