Closing the Gaps in Mental Health Services for Children and Youth

By Kelli McAdams

Our Community Our Future (OCOF) was started in the Fall 2015, when Klaras Center for Families (KCF), the child and adolescent division of Heart of Texas Region MHMR, helped to organize a committee of community stakeholders to look at the needs of children and adolescents in our community.

Our initial goal for OCOF was to identify gaps in services and to work with community partners to meet those identified needs. In an effort to help meet some of the needs identified, we at KCF applied for grant funding on behalf of the OCOF committee. We were awarded the grant and received $3.4 million for an initiative called “Closing the Gaps” through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).  The mission of Closing the Gaps is, “to provide access to previously inaccessible services and supports for our community’s most at-risk youth in order to enhance opportunities and improve outcomes for future success.”

There are three main targets for the funding of this four-year grant:

  • School Based Mental Health
  • Transition Age Youth (TAY)
  • Crisis Respite for Youth

Here are some examples of how we are using the grant funds…

School Based Mental Health – Through OCOF, we have been able to place counselors and case managers on location at schools in the area.  This makes it possible to provide the children and adolescents with the most intensive mental health needs with the care they need with minimal disruption to their school day. Quick and easy access to a counselor or case manager during times of crisis allows for immediate collaboration with school staff to best meet the student’s needs. We are currently on 25 campuses and are serving at least 125 students.

Transition Age Youth – Transition Age Youth (TAY) are individuals ages of 18 to 22. Our grant allows us to provide people in this age range with mental health services and additional support for life skills, education, and employment. Currently we are serving around 30 individuals.

Crisis Respite for Youth – Crisis Respite is a service that is much needed in our community. This means providing a temporary place to stay for young people who need something other than a juvenile placement, CPS placement, or psychiatric hospitalization. For example, Crisis Respite is needed for …

  • children in mental health crisis
  • homeless youth in crisis
  • victims of human trafficking
  • CPS youth in need of respite
  • other similar situations.

Klaras Center for Families is currently in the process of finding a facility that will serve as the Crisis Respite. It is our plan to have our facility function much like a residential home environment instead of a sterile hospital-like setting.

What are we doing in the future? OCOF’s future plans include expanding our community partners, adding additional school partners, applying for grants to expand our TAY program, and opening our Crisis Respite Facility in 2018. Above all, we want to continue filling gaps in services for children, adolescents, youth, and young adults in our community.

Kelli McAdams works for the Heart of Texas Region MHMR, as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She has been with the child and adolescent division of MHMR, Klaras Center for Families, for the last 10 years, most recently as Child and Adolescent Crisis Respite Program Director. As part of Our Community Our Future, I am the Social Marketing Lead, and have the pleasure of sharing what the local system of care is doing to fill the gaps in services, in our community.  For more information about collaborative efforts like “Our Community, Our Future” in the Waco community, please visit the Prosper Waco website –

he Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email for more information.

Celebrating May as National Bike Month

By Chelsea Phlegar

May is National Bike Month! According to the League of American Bicyclists, National Bike Month was established in 1956, and is a chance for communities across the country to showcase the many benefits of bicycling — and encourage more folks to giving biking a try!

Fostering bike culture and expanding opportunities for bicyclists in Waco is important for a lot of reasons: riding a bike is cheaper than driving a car, and a bike is sometimes the primary mode of transportation for those who don’t have access to or can’t afford a car; riding a bike promotes individual health; bicycling instead of driving helps to reduce emissions and preserve clean air in our community; and exploring our community by bike is a way to discover the hidden gems in Waco that you may otherwise miss while driving a car.  Whenever a person chooses to ride their bike they potentially free up a parking spot for someone else. That is Waco Friendly!

Last year, the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) issued an online survey where we asked people to tell us about their transportation and travel habits. Unsurprisingly, when asked how they usually travel around town, over half (56%) of respondents answered “drive by myself,” as compared to 13% percent that answered “ride my bike.”  However, when asked how they would prefer to get around, the percentage of car-based trips decreased substantially, and trips made primarily by biking (or walking) increased, such that the preference for driving, walking, and biking was fairly evenly split (between 25% and 27% each).

When we asked more detailed questions about survey respondents’ experience with biking as a mode of transportation (as opposed to recreation), it became clear that lots of Wacoans want to get on their bikes but are prevented from doing so, or are hesitant, for a few common reasons:

  • They don’t know safe routes to ride
  • There aren’t many bike lanes or bike paths that are separated enough from vehicle traffic to make them feel comfortable to ride (either by themselves, or with their families)
  • And they don’t feel confident that people driving their cars will know how to share the road in a way that is predictable and safe for everyone

One way to tackle these concerns is to build out our community bike network, and expand education and safety materials, with the novice bicyclist in mind. The novice bicyclist feels comfortable on lower-speed roads where motorists expect to see people on bikes, and prefers to be physically separated from cars when possible (such as buffered bike lanes and off-street bicycle/pedestrian paths or trails). The MPO is working on an Active Transportation Plan that will help to guide expansion of the bicycle network in the future. The plan will incorporate a lot of the feedback that was received from the online survey. However, in the meantime, here are some available resources that may help to address these common concerns:

I don’t know safe routes to ride! The MPO has developed a bicycle suitability index that is available online (here). This index rates arterial or collector streets in city limits (and several county roads) on a sliding scale, based on the potential level of comfort for a novice bicyclist. Rating levels include Easy, Moderate, Difficult, Not Recommended, Extreme, Under Construction, Prohibited, and Not Evaluated. Roadways in Waco city limits that don’t have a rating are usually “local” neighborhood streets, which are typically lower-speed, lower-vehicle-volume roads that may be comparable to an Easy or Moderate rating. The suitability index considers factors such as vehicle speed, traffic and truck volume, on-street parking, slopes/hills, land uses, etc.

There’s no place to bike! In McLennan County, we have 24 miles of bicycle infrastructure on the ground (including bike lanes, signed bike routes, and off-street multi-use paths such as the riverwalk and Cottonbelt Trail. The city of Waco has made a lot of progress over the past few years in expanding opportunities for biking in our community. For example, a new section of the riverwalk opened in late 2017, which means there is now a 5.5 mile continuous off-street loop for pedestrians and bicyclists along the Brazos River. Buffered bike lanes are available for use along Panther Way, and upcoming capital improvement projects will offer additional bicycle/pedestrian connectivity along Ritchie Rd and in the vicinity of Midway High School.  In 2017, the City of Waco installed new bike route signs along University Parks and 11th/12th Streets.  Also in 2017, the city was awarded two competitive grants to improve pedestrian and bicycle connectivity. The first will include upgrading the newly signed bike routes on 11/12th Streets to striped bike lanes (construction expected later this year). The second project will include bicycle accommodations starting at University Parks Drive, heading up the Washington Avenue Bridge, and up Elm Avenue to Forrest St. This will include a combination of bike lanes and shared lanes with pavement markings (sharrows), and construction is expected to start in 2019. The city is also exploring the possibility of starting a pilot bike share program.

I’m scared of the cars! The MPO has been working with the Waco Bike Club to develop or distribute educational materials focused on bike safety. However, this is an area that will require more focused effort in the near term. In the meantime, the city of Waco has applied for recognition as a Bicycle Friendly Community. As part of this application process, the city will receive advice on how to improve in areas such as education and safety training.  However, one way that everyone can help is to build and promote bike culture in Waco. Bicyclists also drive cars too — so the more people we can encourage to get out there and ride their bike, the more informed drivers we will have on the road.

Another way to get more comfortable biking is to participate in a group ride. The Waco Bike Club is one organization that regularly sponsors these events and welcomes riders of all experience levels. You can check out their Facebook page (here), for upcoming events. Specifically for Bike Month, the Waco Bicycle Club is inviting you to participate in two events:

Ride of Silence, Wednesday May 16, 7 PM to 8 PM         

Meet at the fountain in Heritage Square, View the event page on Facebook (here).

On May 16, Waco will participate in the national Ride of Silence ride to honor and remember those who have been injured or killed while cycling on public roadways in our community, and increase bike safety awareness. The Waco ride will include a stop at the White Bike on Franklin Ave to remember David Grotberg.

Critical Mass, Friday May 25, 6 PM to 7 PM

Meet at the fountain in Heritage Square, View the event page on Facebook (here).

Critical Mass is a community bike ride occurring on the last Friday of every month. Rides start downtown at the Heritage Square fountain (in front of City Hall) at 6:00 pm. Generally the ride is about 7 miles long (approx. 1 hour). In the past, Critical Mass rides have meandered along the Brazos, explored Elm Avenue, and cruised through Oakwood Cemetery. Critical Mass is open to riders of all experience levels, although children should be accompanied by an experienced adult.  If you’re bringing your kids, we encourage you to practice riding before attending (more biking, yay!).

We hope that our pleasant spring weather and longer daylight hours motivates you to get out and ride your bike during Bike Month!

Chelsea Phlegar, AICP, is a Senior Planner with the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization. She also serves as the MPO’s active transportation coordinator, and spends her days working to improve multi-modal connectivity in McLennan County. On the weekends you can find her snacking her way through the Waco Downtown Farmers Market or “running” along the riverwalk.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email for more information.

How Getting Involved Changed the Lives of Four MCC Students

By Madiha Kark

As a college student, staying engaged with coursework and campus life can seem intimidating if not impossible. But for a select group of students at MCC this engagement is a fundamental part of their educational experience, as well as their own core values.

After a competitive application process, a select group of students are named Presidential Scholars each year at McLennan Community College. The students receive a full scholarship and spend the year volunteering around the community, sharing new ideas with campus administrators, and traveling around the country. We sat down with several of these students to learn more about their experience at MCC, and how it has been shaped by this program.

From the start, freshman Ethan Blanton emphasized the power of leadership when recounting his experience as a Presidential Scholar. At just 19 years old Blanton grounds himself daily with the responsibilities his position entails.

“Our number one responsibility is (to) know that we are representing our school. Whether it is at dinner with a speaker… we know the speaker is seeing MCC when he sees us.”

When I asked Blanton to describe his experience with a recent speaker, a grin spread across his face instantly. “Okay,” he said, “my absolute favorite speaker was Supreme Court Justice Clarence Brown. That was one of my favorite experiences in the program but also just in life,” he said sincerely, still maintaining a slight sense of disbelief that this moment had actually occurred. “I never would’ve had the chance to do this, to meet this wonderful man, unless I was in Presidential Scholars.”

Echoing this sentiment, sophomore Scholar Elijah Espinoja spoke of the rarity of these experiences and volunteer efforts. “There are certain experiences we have had here that not many people get,” he said humbly.

This advice has proved beneficial for Espinoja, who radiated a profound sense of both leadership and gratitude throughout the entirety of the interview. “Being involved in this program has opened so many doors for me,” he said while speaking of his own personal and academic experiences at MCC.

One of these doors opened after meeting an engineer at a Presidential Scholars event, when he was inspired to change his major to mechanical engineering. Even with this change Espinoja emphasized the stability he found on campus at MCC. “MCC is a great place,” he said, “everything about this school has been really good to me.”

So good in fact, that Espinoja has now inspired his younger brother to attend MCC and join him in the Presidential Scholars program. He expressed the importance of getting involved on campus, a trait that he seems to have been passed down to his brother Matthew.

“Getting involved anywhere is important,” he advised. “That is how you are going to succeed. You never know who you are going to meet… So do as much as you can, because the experience you get here is one of a kind.”

For freshman Seraphina Gayle, this sentiment of involvement resonated with her own experience throughout her first year at MCC. Gayle visibly lit up when discussing the role of other Presidential Scholars in her life.

“I think it’s important to be involved,” she said, discussing the friendships made through campus involvement. “A lot of times you can put your heads together and figure out what you want to change on campus.”

This people-oriented mentality seemed to be a theme throughout Gayle’s recollection of her time at MCC, but also has roots in the early days of her life. As a first generation college student, Gayle noted the importance of two fundamental people, her mother and father, throughout her educational career.

“For me (college) is something my parents haven’t done,” she said, “so we’re all figuring it out together.” When asked about her parents later she opened up about their impact on her college experience this far. “It definitely makes me more motivated,” she said candidly. “And college truly does have a meaning for me.”

Freshman Presidential Scholar Yuridia Navarro shares a similar story, as a first generation college student centered on motivation stemming from her own lineage. In every possible moment to glorify herself, Navarro managed to highlight the sacrifice and motivation from her parents as the explanation for her continued success.

“My parents came from Mexico for a better education for us and a better future for us,” she said of herself and her two younger siblings. “So them seeing me go to school for free fulfills the purpose of their struggle.”

When asked about the program’s application process, Navarro openly discussed her initial intimidation of the Presidential Scholars program. “I don’t even really remember the application,” she admitted sheepishly. “I just thought ‘this is Presidential; I am not worthy of this.’”

But soon this attitude was changed with the reception of the scholarship, and her concurrent experiences both on campus and around the community. “It makes me humble,” she said. “It makes me feel good giving back to my community because my community has given so much to me through MCC.”

And give back she plans to do, with a bright vision for a career in psychology after graduation. “I think about my family and how none of us have an education, and (how) I want to be that chain that breaks,” she said truthfully. Even with impressive accomplishments behind her and achievable goals ahead, Navarro still shifted the attention away from herself and towards others.

“I want to be a new generation,” she told me. “I want to be the motivation for my younger siblings.”

For each of these students, the sky seems to be the limit for both academic and professional success. But perhaps the most impressive factor linking each of them is the shared responsibility to make a difference; at MCC, around the community and even within their own households. Their deep sense of humility and focus on helping others is as prevalent as it is profound, as these four individuals succeed in inspiring all those around them.

Madiha Kark is a Marketing, Communications and Photography Specialist at McLennan Community College. She holds an M.A. in Journalism from the University of North Texas. She loves to travel, cook, and read nonfiction books.

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email for more information.