School-based health clinic welcome addition

Aymi Bennhoff, a nurse practitioner, works at the Student Based Health Center at the Pawcatuck Middle School.

Does your child need a physical for the start of the school year but can't get an appointment in time with your pediatrician?

Having trouble getting out of work to bring your child to the doctor and pick up medication during the school day?

Do they need a vaccine or flu shot?

Or does your family or child need counseling services?

Thanks to the new Student Based Health Center at Pawcatuck Middle School, these services and many others are free and available to all students.

Run and staffed by the Child & Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut, the four-room suite was created with a $100,000 federal grant and will be operated each year with $123,803 in state funding. While there are similar centers in schools in New London and Groton, this is the first in Stonington.

Nurse practitioner Aymi Bennhoff stressed that the center works in conjunction with the school's existing nurse and psychologist and is not intended to take the place of a student's primary care physician.

Instead, the center is designed to augment those services, especially since Bennhoff and clinical social worker Melinda Walsh have immediate access to students and can monitor their condition and progress on a daily basis if needed, something that an outside counselor or doctor can not do.

For example, Bennhoff, who works out of a fully outfitted exam room, can monitor a student's asthma with breathing and oxygen-level tests. She can also and examine their lung function and then report those findings to the student's primary care physician. Walsh, meanwhile, can immediately talk with students who may be facing a problem that day instead of the student having to a wait for an appointment to see an outside counselor.

"The whole goal is to get kids back in school quickly so their ability to learn is optimized," Bennhoff said. "Every child has health care and psychological needs regardless of their socioeconomic status."
She explained that the center is open to all students, regardless of whether they have health insurance.

She said one of the challenges is getting the word out to students and their parents that the center, which opened in August, is open to everyone.

So far one-third of the school's 330 students are enrolled in the center and she said the goal is to increase that to 50 percent by the end of the school year in June and eventually get it to 90 percent.

Bennhoff said signing up doesn't mean a student has to use the center all the time but makes its services available if a student needs them while at school.

She said her physicals last one hour and include screenings for mental health and lifestyle issues. She said she talks to students about any issues that come up and works to address them, whether it's improving nutrition, getting more exercise or making good choices.

She is at the school on Tuesdays and Thursdays and by appointment on Fridays. She expects her time will increase as the center gets busier.

Bennhoff said the school has been extremely supportive of the center.

"The one thing that has been so wonderful about being in this school is how welcoming and supportive the staff here has been," she said. "Change is not easy but people have really stepped up and put the kids first."

Walsh, who is at the school every day, said students are referred to her by the school staff and she meets with them to address issues such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder and anger management and helps them set and achieve those goals. She said parents, meanwhile, do not have to leave work during the day to bring their child to a counseling appointment somewhere else.

She said one the center's big advantages is that it puts her in the environment where a student may be facing challenges and allows her to observe and monitor their progress and offer immediate help.

Walsh currently serves 10 children but she expects that to increase to 25 as the center becomes better known. She and Bennhoff also run student groups that address issues of self-esteem, nutrition and exercise.

Principal Tim Smith said the center's staff are "a great addition to our team."

When state funding was endangered last year, Smith testified at the state Capitol about the need to fund the center.

Smith, whose children attend the Regional Multicultural Magnet School, was already a fan of the concept as he and his family benefited from the center at the New London school.

"It makes everything so much easier. That's why I pushed for it," he said. "I know our students and families will benefit tremendously from this."

J.WOJTAS@THEDAY.COM

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