Western Youth Services – Literally changing lives

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Western Youth Services (WYS) is a non-profit organization and the leader in providing comprehensive mental health services to children, youth, and families in Orange County, California. They have made it their mission to advance awareness, cultivate success, and strengthen communities through integrated mental health services.

Over the years, the organization’s operations have expanded, their team has grown significantly, and their services have continuously improved and refined – but their mission has never changed, and neither has their vision. They are striving to build a society where youth and families are emotionally equipped to succeed. With every service they provide, and every life they impact, they are working towards that goal.

Lorry Leigh Belhumeur, Ph.D., is the Chief Executive Officer of WYS. She first joined the organization as an intern while she was studying to be a psychologist. After graduating, she spent some time in private practice before returning to WYS and rising through the ranks. She says what drew her to the organization, and what keeps her there, is the extraordinary difference they make in the community.

“I believe that the services we provide to children, youth and their families are among the best that are available,” she says.

“When I was with a private practice, I could maybe impact 25 or 30 children and their families at any given time,” she adds. “At Western Youth Services, we get to positively impact and change the lives of thousands of children.”

The origins of WYS date back to 1972, when a group of caring parents, teachers and police officers came together in Fullerton to open what they called the Teenage Resource Centre. They believed that local youth struggling with behavioral or emotional issues deserved more compassion, additional access to treatment, and a greater number of resources devoted just to them. To meet those growing needs, the organization changed their name and expanded alongside their community.

That expansion has steadily continued over the years. Since Lorry was appointed CEO, especially, the organization has grown by leaps and bounds.

When Lorry took the role in 2001, WYS was a $5.1 million organization – a number that has since more than tripled. Back then, they served roughly 1,000 children – they now serve more than 17,000. Through expansion of programs, Lorry managed the organization’s growth in terms of structure and standing – WYS is now the largest county contract agency for children’s mental health services in all of Orange County, with a stellar reputation.

Most importantly, however, Lorry oversaw an evolution in the organization’s approach to mental health services.

In the past, Lorry says WYS was primarily “a provider at the time of crisis” – meaning that their clients would be referred to them when they were diagnosed with a disorder, at which point WYS would provide a mental health practitioner who would then conduct traditional therapy. The organization still does that, and always will, but now they are also working on preventing crisis.

“As a mental health services provider, kids are typically referred to us when they have behavioral problems – maybe because they’re out of control, or they’re defiant, or they can’t pay attention,” Lorry explains. “We’re used to getting the referral when the problem is already established.”

“We’re the ‘safety net,’” she says. “These kids are falling off the cliff, and we’re there with the net.”

WYS is aiming to change that dynamic, however. As their team increased in size, became more skilled and more knowledgeable, Lorry says they are “looking up at the top of the cliff.” As in, they are considering the conditions that cause kids to feel depressed, anxious or traumatized – and they are growing their offerings to include services that combat those conditions.

As Lorry puts it, “We are building a fence of prevention and intervention.” 

“Another way to look at is we’re looking ‘upstream,’” she adds. “Instead of a cliff, the metaphor can be a river. These kids are in the river, and we’ve been picking them out as fast as we can before they drown. But now we’re looking upstream at the factors that result in these kids ending up in the river in the first place.”

This change in approach is highly successful. Lorry says the feedback they have received from parents and youth-serving organizations is very positive. Through evidence-based preventative treatments, they have successfully helped many children take a step back from that proverbial cliff.

Making an impact

Western Youth Services’ success in recent years is also a credit to their dedicated staff members.  Their collective dedication and commitment, Lorry shared, is what makes all services possible. 

WYS employs more than 250 people. The vast majority are ‘clinicians,’ many of them with Master’s Degrees or Doctorates, including family therapists, social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, behavioral health specialists, and more. They also employ a lot of trainees – people who are in school and working towards their degrees – including psychologists-in-training, as they have an American Psychological Association-accredited psychology internship program.

Many of these varied staff members have been with the organization for a long time. Lorry has served for more than 20 years and another employee continues to serve for more than 35 years. Many members of their management and supervisory teams have been there for over a decade.

Lorry credits that loyalty to the underlying mission of WYS, combined with the efficacy of their approach. She says their team believes in the cause they are working towards, and they can see that they are making a real tangible difference in people’s lives.

“We have a lot of longevity in our staff, and I think the number one reason is because we’re truly committed to the clients we serve,” Lorry says. “We know we are helping the most vulnerable population of children and families in this county. That’s very rewarding. We can go home at night and just know that we have changed a life.”

Employees of WYS also know that they are doing the kind of good that not every organization can do for their community.

“We are often confronted with children and families that others might have written off or called a ‘lost cause,’” Lorry explains. “But we don’t look at reasons why we can’t serve somebody. We always consider how we can. We always ask ourselves, ‘How can we help this person?’”

“So the work is very rewarding,” she says. “And that’s what employees tell us. They know they have a purpose, that they are making an impact.”

It was recently ‘Employee Appreciation Day’ at WYS, and Lorry sent out an email with a thank you message to the staff. She received a response that she believes exemplifies the kind of passion that WYS’ team members have for their work:

“Thank you for this email, your words are truly appreciated,” the reply went. “I have felt beyond blessed to be a part of such a dynamic and incredible team, agency that demonstrates power, a power that is literally changing and empowering the lives of so many children and families in our communities. Thank you for letting me be a part of this team, and for the work that you do to advocate and support us so we can do the work that we do.”

Getting the word out

Today, WYS has locations throughout Orange County, which include: outreach and engagement facilities, Medi-Cal outpatient clinics, family resource centers, and on-site school-based services. The organization also offers additional services at additional locations through their collaborative partnerships, in order to provide an integrated approach to mental health care.

With this range of services, WYS makes an extraordinary impact on children and youth in Orange County. This past year, they estimated their impact at over 55,000 clients and families, with over 17,000 served directly, and over 38,000 served indirectly.

WYS aims to keep growing those numbers because the need is still so high. For the last several years, Lorry says the organization has been in “growth mode.”

“Every year, we’ve been growing our programs, and serving more and more people in the community,” she says. “In the last three years alone, we’ve grown something like 43 per cent.”

Much of that growth, Lorry reiterates, has been in their service offering for kids and families that are not yet in crisis. WYS has put a lot of time and effort into finding and developing programs and evidence-based treatments that prevent mental health disorders from developing, and prevent crises from happening in the first place.

As an important part of that effort, WYS has made it a priority to educate parents, teachers, Boys and Girls Clubs, as well as any other youth-serving organizations they can find. In particular, they are instructing them on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and the proven link they have to mental health conditions. 

“When kids are exposed to abuse, neglect or family dysfunction at a young age it impacts the way their brain develops and it makes them more likely to become depressed and anxious, to develop PTSD, and to have learning and behaviour problems,” Lorry explains. “Since we know these ACEs create that risk, we have become expert in the data and the literature around ACEs, and we are getting that information out there to anyone who will listen.”

“We’re offering specific solutions on how to recognize early signs of mental health conditions in kids, and also how to build resilience,” she continues. “Boys and Girls Clubs and teachers are seeing more and more distressed kids, so we’re out there giving them tools and information about how not only to be trauma informed, but trauma competent. We let them know exactly what to do when they see a child that is in emotional distress.”

“And they don’t have to be a mental health professional to do it,” she concludes. “They can just have an empathetic, compassionate interaction with that child and it can make all the difference in the world.”

At the same time as they disseminate that information, WYS will continue striving to be the premier mental health services provider for children, youth and families with intense mental health needs – the ones already in the river, so to speak. WYS recognizes how tremendously important their service to that demographic is, and how much of a need for it there remains.

“One in five kids has a diagnosable mental health condition,” Lorry says. “That’s 20 percent. That’s an egregious number. If 20 percent of the population had any other kind of condition we’d be calling it an epidemic. Yet only about a third of those one in five kids has access to the treatment they need. That’s why what we do is so important, and why we need to invest in children.” For more on Western Youth Services and their mission – as well as client stories, resources on ways to give back, and more on their evidence-based practices – visit http://www.westernyouthservices.org/