Kids in Texas are going back to school amid book bans, opposition to social emotional learning, and concerns over school violence.  During this especially divisive time, a strong partnership between two Austin nonprofits is providing much-needed mental health support to students, families, and school communities.

Joining us today is Maria Arabbo, executive director of the Amala Foundation, a grantee partner of the Hogg Foundation, and Sharon Vigil, chief executive officer of Communities In Schools of Central Texas. They discuss their programming partnership in Austin-area schools and their shared focus on supporting youth well-being using a holistic, relationship-driven approach.

Communities In Schools of Central Texas

“Relationships matter,” says Sharon Vigil, chief executive officer of Communities In Schools of Central Texas (Communities). “We believe every child is just an opportunity away from being successful. We make sure students are surrounded with holistic relationships so they can thrive on campus.”

For almost 40 years, Communities has worked to empower students to stay in school and achieve in life by surrounding them with a community of support. Serving students by engaging and collaborating with their families is central to the nonprofit organization’s approach. Their holistic, wrap-around services focus on social emotional learning (SEL), supporting mental health, and addressing basic needs.

Currently, full-time Communities staff members work onsite at 103 elementary, middle, and high school campuses across seven school districts in Central Texas. Significant volunteer support and committed community partners also play a vital role in their success.

The Austin-based Amala Foundation (Amala) is one such partner.

Amala Foundation

Smiling black woman, looking over shoulder.Translated from the Arabic word for “hope”, Amala Foundation was founded in 2001 with the mission “to inspire people of all ages and backgrounds to connect with themselves and others, grow as individuals, and serve as conscious leaders in their communities.” The foundation offers SEL programs for children and teens, and professional workshops, yoga, and mindfulness classes for adults.

“We really try to encourage a sense of belonging, resiliency, and a deeper understanding of self and others,” says executive director Maria Arabbo.

Circle Up Partnership

Aligned in their holistic approaches to supporting wellness and building community, Communities and Amala began partnering on the school-based Circle Up program in 2015.

“Our partnership with Communities In Schools is one of the strongest and most important collaborations we have at the Amala Foundation,” says Maria. “We have so much to learn from each other.”

Circle Up is a weekly SEL program serving youth, families, teachers, and administrators in Austin-area elementary, middle, and high schools. In addition to helping youth develop essential life skills, like healthy coping behaviors and emotional resilience, a primary goal of the program is to build youths’ sense of belonging.

Facilitators from Amala meet weekly with groups of eight to ten students on campus to practice mindfulness, take part in sharing circles, and engage in group activities. The program offers a safe place for students to engage in conversations around emotions, feel seen, and know that their voice matters.

By also providing family wellness workshops and professional development opportunities tailored to each school’s specific needs, Circle Up aims to improve social-emotional functioning throughout the campus community.

“You cannot serve a student alone,” says Sharon. “They’re rooted in their family culture and it’s important to bring families alongside of us and for families to bring us alongside of them. It really is a collaborative effort.”

Moving Forward

Maria and Sharon acknowledge the challenges of supporting students’ mental health in Texas’ current political climate. But they see opportunities as well.

“It empowers us to want to be in more schools and in more communities,” says Sharon. “Because of what’s happening politically in Texas and the impact it’s having on children, it’s so vital for students to have a space where they can fully be seen. For us, what’s happening in Texas just gives us strength and encourages us to do more work so that more students have access to the services they need.”

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