Featured Fellow: Providence’s District Coordinator for Project AWARE Amy Messenger Discusses the Importance of Community Wellness

By Jenna Wyman, CEI Intern

Providence, Rhode Island School District’s Amy Messenger has always felt the drive to support others. Starting with volunteer work in high school and college, eventually working professionally as a social worker and in foster care, she is an individual who truly personifies the values of community wellness. Through these early career experiences, Messenger was a first-hand witness to the inequity of mental health resource distribution and the resulting struggles for youth development. She developed an interest in playing an active role in changing the infrastructure that created this inequity and helping individuals on their own journey to improve their situation. After working as a social worker since 2006, Messenger transitioned into a role as the Providence School District’s Project AWARE Grant Coordinator in the fall of 2020. In this position, she is able to work with schools across the district to actively increase awareness of mental health issues and well-being. Community wellness is oriented around community-based program planning that facilitates interventions based on the specific needs of the given community. This is exactly what Messenger does in her position with Project AWARE as she works closely with various schools in Providence to strengthen school-based support systems. 

Increasing Mental Health Resources Through Project AWARE

Project AWARE is a nationally-funded $9 million SAMHSA grant project in partnership with the Rhode Island Department of Education and the Department of Children Youth and Families that aims to improve school infrastructure to have more emphasis on student mental health and well-being. The grant follows a five-year timeline that will provide training and programs for educators across the state. With this, comes a focus on standardized screening for mental health as well as regular professional development so that school faculty is able to properly provide support for the students. Furthermore, the grant aims to connect families, schools, and communities to increase engagement with and awareness of youth mental health. The standardization of mental health resources in schools through the support of Project AWARE will increase the likelihood of children receiving the necessary guidance they need as they go through various mental health struggles. 

In her position as Grant Coordinator, Messenger plays an active role in working with the teams at various schools to ensure things are on track with the established goals of Project AWARE. Rhode Island school districts are currently in the implementation phase of the grant plan so the majority of Messenger’s work revolves around assessing each individual school’s current strengths and weaknesses and how to support their process to optimize the resources they can provide for students, families, and faculty. The support involves universal mental health screening for the student body at the beginning of the school year to determine any existing conditions that require professional attention. This screening process provides direction and meaning to the mental health goals of the school. In addition, professional development is an integral piece of this support as faculty go through multiple training days to be equipped with the necessary tools to provide mental health resources for their students. The ultimate goal of Project AWARE is to have processes like these inherently built into the infrastructure of all schools. This systematic change will ensure that students, family, and faculty are receiving the guidance they need to optimize individual and community wellness. 

The Impact of COVID 19 on Project AWARE

It comes as no surprise that the pandemic has created a couple of road bumps in the timeline of Messenger’s work with Project AWARE. Given that a large component of her job revolves around developing close relationships with school faculty, it is difficult to establish the same degree of connection via online meetings. The same can be said for ensuring the families and students have access to the resources that they would typically have in the physical school environment. However, these barriers have not stopped the school-based teams and Messenger from finding alternative methods to support school communities. They have been able to host open office hours on Zoom for parents so that they can have a place to gather and candidly ask questions with educators. Messenger has found that parents have an immense appreciation for these virtual meetings as they value this ability to connect with the community. Overall, she has found a shared understanding of the importance of connection as the Project AWARE programs have needed to adapt to the limitations of these times. There is also a silver lining to the COVID restrictions for in-person classes. Messenger notes that due to the smaller number of students in class per day, it is easier to provide the necessary attention and support for optimal mental health development. 

Embodying the Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative’s Mission for Community Wellness

As a Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative (C-TLC) Fellow since 2018, Messenger has no shortage of knowledge when it comes to an understanding of trauma and its implications on child development. She views her time with the C-TLC as immensely beneficial, particularly through her newfound relationship with her mentee Stacy Champey who works as a Multi-Tiered Systems of Support District Coach in the Manchester School District. She also values access to webinars and learning from her peer Fellows. Ultimately, she was most drawn to the C-TLC because of its emphasis on mindfulness and its relationship to mental health. The knowledge that she has gained from her time as a Fellow has undoubtedly influenced her work as a social worker and with Project AWARE. Through the development of relationships with schools across Rhode Island and New England and the implementation of mental health interventions and professional development, Messenger truly understands what it means to bolster community wellness. 

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