An expansive new effort is underway to tackle some of the Detroit Lakes area’s toughest issues and strengthen the social fabric of the community.

Under the apt name The HOPE Project, a group of local nonprofit agencies, faith and service organizations, volunteers, and health care, school and government officials are working together to try and bring a ray of hope into the lives of people struggling with substance abuse, childhood trauma and mental well-being.

Formed only a few months ago as a subcommittee of Becker County Energize, The HOPE Project has a targeted goal of “Improving resiliency and mental well-being and reducing the impact of substance use disorder in Becker County.” (Becker County Energize, supported by Essentia Health-St. Mary’s, is a broader initiative to improve county residents’ health and quality of life.)

The HOPE Project committee has been meeting regularly to come up with some tangible strategies and a realistic action plan to start meeting its goals. Karen Pifher, the West Community Health Manager for Becker County Energize, said there are about 150 people on The HOPE Project’s listserve, and about 40 of those are actively involved in the meetings.

The group’s focus is on connecting and expanding the area’s existing mental health and substance abuse resources, as well as creating some new ones, in order to more effectively reach and serve the people of Becker County.

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The committee’s reach extends into area schools, health care agencies, nonprofits and virtually every sector of the county community.

“It’s about collective impact … connecting resources,” Pifher said. “It’s about, ‘How can we work together to increase the capacity to serve?’”

“I couldn’t emphasize enough the importance of being able to collaborate,” said Peter Lundin, a HOPE Project committee member and principal of the Area Learning Center in Detroit Lakes. “We just have to find better ways to communicate; better ways to be efficient … There are already so many great efforts happening. It just needs to be more collaborative.”

“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel — we’ve got it,” said DelRae Chivers, the outreach development coordinator at Lakes Crisis & Resource Center. “Now, let’s just market it. It’s about bringing that community awareness to what’s out there.”

The issues of opioid and other substance abuse, ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences, or childhood trauma) and mental health were all previously identified by the community as top priorities to address, through community surveys, focus groups and workshops led by Becker County Energize. The HOPE Project emerged out of those efforts, as an avenue for action.

So far, The HOPE Project committee has created a list of seven action items:

  1. Develop an online resource hub for information on mental health and substance abuse;
  2. Develop and implement certain case management services for youth with substance abuse-related legal charges;
  3. Implement solutions to serve youth at highest risk;
  4. Expand the Kinship program in Becker County;
  5. Expand access to recovery programming and supportive services;
  6. Develop a comprehensive educational plan for the community about mental well-being and substance use disorder, with a specific emphasis in schools; and
  7. Expand access to medication-assisted treatment to address opioid use disorder.

That last goal got a big boost recently when it was announced that Becker County, thanks in large part to the legwork of Becker County Energize and The Hope Project, is among one of two key areas in the Upper Midwest that will benefit most from a $1 million federal grant.

The grant will help fund some additional medication-assisted treatment options and care coordination support staff at Essentia Health in Detroit Lakes. This means patients who visit Essentia wanting substance abuse treatment will be able to get faster referrals, and will have a designated person to help them navigate the system and stay on the right path throughout the process.

An intent of the grant is to help Detroit Lakes continue to grow as a “rural spoke” of care, with specialty care and consultation for substance use disorders available locally.

Pat Conway, a research scientist at the Essentia Institute of Rural Health and the lead writer behind the grant, said Becker County, and the Detroit Lakes area more specifically, was targeted for the grant dollars because of the “strong networks that are already there.”

“Detroit Lakes is lucky to have the resources they already do,” Conway said. “Detroit Lakes already had a community group that was active and engaged … They already had some components in place and were poised to take the next step.”

Pifher said another grant application is already in the works, to continue to bring in funding to achieve the goals of The HOPE Project. The work that’s being done by the group, she said, “absolutely affects everybody in the community.”

And when success is achieved, such as through the recent grant award, she added, “It also affects how our leaders work together. When you get one positive outcome and can say, ‘Hey, look, we were able to bring this money into the community by working together … it builds capacity for further changes down the road. Collaboration is so powerful.”

The HOPE Project is or will be impacting the community in a variety of ways. For just a few examples, read on.

Making resources easier to find online

The HOPE Project committee’s first goal was to create a comprehensive list of all the mental health and substance abuse resources that are available in the region — the mental health care providers, specialty services, agencies, etc. — along with additional helpful information, such as whether or not a provider accepts payments on a sliding fee scale.

The committee’s goal was to get that list online within 90 days. It’s partially up now, and is expected to be up very soon, at beckercountyenergize.com (click on “Resources,” “The HOPE Project”).

The HOPE Project wants to make the Becker County Energize website an “online hub” of helpful information like this. There’s also a suicide assessment form on the site, plus mental health and substance abuse Q&As, and links to the informational “Inside Out: A Step Inside Mental Illness” video and newspaper series.

Resources on the website are printable, and there’s information on “What to do next?” for those who decide they’d like to seek professional help.

“We developed a template that will be on the Becker County Energize website, a questionnaire identifying how people are feeling and who they can reach out to,” committee member Chivers said.

Beyond that, Chivers said, the committee is considering some marketing efforts to try and reach people. In the future, there might be advertisements — posters in bathroom stalls, for example — asking people if they’re “Feeling Blue?” and directing them to the Becker County Energize website.

The idea is to encourage people to “take that first step,” she said. “We’re hoping to take away that first step barrier.”

Reaching and serving kids

The HOPE Project committee is partnering with area schools to share information about mental health and substance abuse issues, and improve students’ access to needed services.

The partnership is still in its early stages, but committee members have already been talking with schools about best practices in terms of student mental health and substance abuse management.

Committee member Lundin said the point is “to continue to expand options and possibilities for kids, whether they’re at the (Area Learning Center) or throughout the whole district (or region).”

There are already positive relationships between the schools and chemical dependency professionals in the community, he said, but “our hope is that we are going to continue to broaden our access and service delivery from the community organizations and agencies. More is always going to be better.”

“Schools can’t and shouldn’t provide everything for everybody,” Lundin added, “and that’s where we want to partner with other outside agencies … for kids and families.”

The HOPE Project could help facilitate access to outside licensed counseling opportunities, for example, or could serve as a liaison to help students and their families navigate the process of getting professional help.

The committee can also provide schools and students with educational information about mental well-being, substance abuse and ACEs.

“Our concerns revolve around interventions that address healthy lifestyles, continued growth as a person, and connections between people,” Lundin saod.

Outside of the schools, The HOPE Committee is working on creating healthy activities and social opportunities for at-risk youth. The CornerStone Community and Youth Center in Frazee, for example, is a project under the committee’s wing.

CornerStone brings arts-focused and STEM programming to youth in Frazee, as well as cooking programs, physical fitness classes and other activities meant to help kids build social skills and healthy habits.

The CornerStone project is new and still seeking a permanent home, Pifher said, “but we’re already seeing how it’s making a difference for some of the kids.”

Encouraging mentorships

“I think the point of the whole HOPE Project is just to make our community better, to improve our community overall,” said Stephanie Baker, Kinship coordinator and HOPE Project committee member. “And we believe that mentoring is one of the number one ways to make a difference in our community, because you’re not just volunteering your time here and there, you’re actually changing a life. We think that mentoring is a huge part of The HOPE Project, and we’ll be able to make a huge impact on kids — and adults, too.”

There’s a need for more mentor volunteers at the local Kinship program, Baker said, with 17 kids currently on the waiting list and the potential for many more to be added. Baker’s belief is that every child would benefit from a mentor, whether they’re considered at-risk or not.

The HOPE Project is working to help recruit more mentors for the program, so more kids can benefit from positive relationships with caring adults. Studies show that mentorships increase a child’s social skills and self-esteem, among other positive outcomes such as improved academic performance.

A goal the committee is working on right now, Baker said, is to partner with area businesses to get them to offer their employees an incentive for becoming a Kinship mentor.

“We have a goal of increasing Kinship mentors by 100 mentors in the next three years,” she said. “It’s a lofty goal, but we’re thinking we can definitely reach that goal.”

The program currently has 42 mentorship matches, and that number is steadily increasing.