To read this story, please sign in with your email address and password.
You’ve read all your free stories this month. Subscribe now and unlock unlimited access to our stories, exclusive subscriber content, additional newsletters, invitations to special events, and more.Sign in Subscribe
Don’t have an account yet? Register here.
More than two decades of volunteer service, and counting, is a good trade to Gail Thompson.
“For a year and a half, he was alive,” Thompson said. “I had my son. Milano House gave my boy back to me. And it was when he died when I started.”
Thompson on Nov. 13 was named 2023 Youth Mental Health Advocate during Burrell Behavioral Health’s third Youth Mental Health Conference in Springfield. She was surprised with the award. Thompson won for volunteering at Burrell’s Milano House, a psychiatric residential treatment facility for kids 13-19 years old, for more than 22 years.
Mitra Pedram, director of Burrell’s Behavioral Crisis Center, said Thompson quickly monopolized the selection process for this year’s award winner, the third in the company’s history.
“In my mind, Gail was a shoo-in,” Pedram said. “She really embodies not only being an advocate for youth who have some mental health needs, but really just devoting her time and energy to that cause.”
Thompson received the award in front of more than 200 teachers, counselors and other professionals attending Monday’s conference. It featured a welcome from Springfield Public Schools Superintendent Grenita Lathan, a singing performance from Boys and Girls Club members and a keynote address from Josh Shipp, a nationally-touring motivational speaker for teachers.
Conference devoted to a growing concern
Poor mental health has widely been identified as a growing problem for youth across the country. Burrell earlier this year broke ground on a youth crisis center, projected to be completed in 2025.
The list of workshops covered subjects such as suicide risk management, eating disorders, trauma and PTSD, helping kids deal with divorce, serving homeless youth and occupational therapy services.
The event had plenty of overlap with schools and education, as well. It featured sessions on tier 1 interventions in the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports model used by Springfield Public Schools, managing ADHD in the classroom, school crisis interventions and supporting re-entering youth.
“In order to perform academically, students must be in the right mindset, and must have the right emotional stability,” Lathan said. “Burrell has truly helped us, and their school-based services have made a difference in our students’ lives.”
The school district partnered with Burrell for a variety of mental health services for its students. Those are woven into Springfield Public Schools’ five-year strategic plan.
Amy Hill, executive vice president of community and school-based services at SPS, said about 20% of students struggle with mental health, but those struggles can affect more people than just the student experiencing them.
“Mental health has a significant impact on a student’s academic performance, but a more obvious thing are behavioral implications in the classroom,” Hill said. “If a student is struggling, then they might be acting out, and that in turn can be disruptive to the learning environment. It’s really important for educators to understand the prevalence of mental health and its impact.”
Hill led a workshop about one of the three tiers of the PBIS system used by SPS. Tier 1 interventions deal with the entire school community, while tier 2 and 3 interventions deal with much smaller groups of students with continued behavioral health issues.
As part of tier 1 interventions, middle school and high school students in Springfield schools this year received a more detailed outline of behavior expectations, as teachers standardized rules for conduct and activity.
“Something I say often is that 20% of children have mental illness, but 100% of children have mental health,” Hill said. “Tier 1 really helps us address the entire student body population, and helps support their wellness. And that also directly impacts teacher wellness.”
Volunteer recognized for offering crucial support
Thompson knows all too well about the struggles youth face today. She has been listening to them firsthand. As a volunteer for Burrell’s Milano House, Thompson has been an advocate and friend to residents who don’t have family or friends visiting them or supporting them.
In addition to listening to them and sharing stories, she helps young people earn trips outside of the house for recreational activities, such as a meal out or a shopping trip.
“It is hard to motivate a child that is never going to get a pass, never going to get a visitor,” Thompson said. “That’s where I come in. I’ve had a couple who are like my daughters.”
Pedram said Thompson has taken on about 18 residents over the last 20 years who were in the custody of the state. Thompson would become a visiting resource for those residents, which meant she would help hold them accountable for progress and celebrate successes with visits, recreational passes and home visits.
Thompson would also visit with Milano House residents on holidays.
“She impacted their treatment because it gave them motivation, someone to connect with,” Pedram said. “It also gave them someone to practice some of the skills they were learning and some of the focus of their treatment.”
The work came naturally to Thompson, she said, because she saw it work firsthand. As a teen, her son Andy was admitted to Milano House, and flourished. For a year and a half, she saw her son grow and find himself, until he died at 16 after an accident at his grandparents’ house.
“He got his driver’s license, got a job,” Thompson said. “He was on the B honor roll, he had a girlfriend.”
True, heartfelt connections
Thompson started out by taking presents to the residents of the home — not just supplies such as pillows, but actual presents that kids would enjoy. Only a few years later, she started visitations.
Known as “Miss Gail,” Thompson said she spends the first hour with a kid letting them ask whatever they want. And those questions can get brutal, she said. But it is there where the work begins — Thompson said those kids work for their rewards.
It is a heart-heavy job she does, Pedram said. Before attending Monday’s conference, Thompson had stopped by Milano House to drop off some pillows.
“She is constantly keeping in her mind children who are receiving intensive treatment,” Pedram said. “She finds ways to make them feel special and connected.”
Keeping the award secret from her was one of the toughest things to do, Hill said. It largely worked — Thompson said she didn’t know until Pedram said on stage that the winner was a volunteer at Milano House.
“I’m the only volunteer there,” Thompson said, laughing.