In 2021, a growing partnership for children in Appalachian Ohio helped draw $16.5 million in funding to the region to advance a simple but powerful concept: where you live should not determine how you are treated.
The Appalachian Children Coalition (ACC) is bringing together funding and collaborating organizations, including Nationwide Children’s Hospital, to improve the health and wellbeing of young people through expanded access to behavioral health services. According to the coalition’s website, southeast Ohio falls far short of the state of Ohio average on every measure of health and wellbeing.
“We are aiming for a future where a child has access to the care they require at their home, at school and in their communities,” said Randy Leite, PhD, who joined the ACC as its executive director in January 2021 after retiring from serving as the dean of the College of Health Sciences and Professions at Ohio University for 12 years.
The ACC has two main roles: advocating before lawmakers and convening and building capacity for regional partners. The coalition promotes investment opportunities in the region among policymakers in Columbus and Washington, D.C., while linking organizations that work in the same areas, but don't often work together.
“We are a servant to those who serve kids,” said Dr. Leite. “Bringing investment to the region and building and empowering impactful collaborations are the most meaningful things we can do.”
The ACC’s top priorities are expanding access to broadband, building better continuity of behavioral health care and crisis support for kids, and increasing the region’s behavioral health workforce. Ultimately, the coalition is framed by three overarching goals: reflect innovation, impact communities and develop insights that can be shared with other regions.
Access to behavioral health care for children in Appalachian Ohio is a substantial challenge facing the region due to a lack of adequate workforce. Organizations in the region are unable to launch much-needed programs, such as a recently built crisis stabilization center in Gallia County that cannot open because the center cannot find enough workers, Dr. Leite said.
The ACC understands that the specific needs of a local community can vary widely throughout the region and provides resources at the direction of each individual community. For example, the coalition recently connected the city of Portsmouth with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Ohio when the city expressed an interest in developing after-school programming in the community.
“This is very much a community-born and -driven organization, and that's the ideal,” said Stacy Kramer, Nationwide Children’s director of Regional Wellness. She sits on the ACC’s advisory committee on behalf of the hospital.
Nationwide Children’s works with the coalition on a strategic level and identifies ways the hospital can help, whether it is through access to data, programming or other resources. Nationwide Children’s was invited to join the ACC to add its pediatric behavioral health expertise as the coalition builds its platform and priority initiatives.
“When Dr. Leite and the ACC approached us about being part of the coalition, it was a natural fit. Our respective missions to improve pediatric health are very much aligned,” said Kramer.
In 2021, ACC facilitated approximately $16.5 million dollars of investment from the state of Ohio and other sources, including $9.5 million dollars for behavioral health residential treatment facilities for children, $1.1 million to put telehealth equipment in 44 schools in the Muskingum Valley area, and $2.5 million to build up the region’s behavioral health workforce. According to Dr. Leite, for every dollar of its operational costs, the coalition generated about $80 for partner organizations in the region.
The coalition knows that investment in greater access to behavioral health services is not only impacting the region’s children today but is helping build stronger communities into the future. “Healthy kids grow up into healthy adults,” said Kramer. “Focusing on their physical, social and emotional wellbeing sets kids up to be successful as adults. Healthy kids and adults create successful communities.”
Even while the ACC had remarkable success in bringing investment in the region in the past year, it is still in the relatively early stages of development. As 2022 begins, the coalition is looking to grow by adding available resources for the region, increasing the number of members and partners and becoming more deeply connected in local communities.
“The coalition allows the Appalachian region of Ohio to speak with one voice around behavioral health,” said Ms. Kramer. “It keeps all of us focused on the children of this vital part of the state.”