Olive Crest to open new counseling center for at-risk children in Palm Desert on Thursday

·6 min read

While some may not think much about playing board games with their family, Shannon Hoag is happiest when she gets to play a couple of rounds with her granddaughters or hear them laughing at silly TikTok videos, even if she doesn't understand the humor much.

Those small acts make her feel like they're a true family, and that hasn't always been the case.

Her two granddaughters, now teens, grew up in an abusive household, Hoag said, and it was common to see them with bruises or act out when they were younger. Child Protective Services would often intervene, she explained, and the girls would live with her or be placed in a foster care. When they were living with Hoag between 2017 and 2018, she described the girls as "sweet and loving."

The girls returned to their grandmother's care as teens, but this time, she said, "it was different."

"They're now teenagers and just a wreck. They have total post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder and oppositional defiant disorder," a type of behavior disorder that often includes children being uncooperative, defiant and hostile toward others, Hoag said. But their behavior changed in the past several months, which she credits the work of behavioral health specialists and clinicians through Olive Crest, a nonprofit organization that has helped Coachella Valley families and abused, neglected and at-risk children through a number of programs since 2001.

"I could see the light finally, and there's joy back in our family," Hoag said, who is the legal guardian of her two granddaughters now. "I don't know how we would have made it without them. I had no hope."

Olive Crest, which also has offices throughout Southern California, Nevada and Washington, will have another tool in its toolbox with the addition of a counseling center in Palm Desert, set to open Thursday. Hoag said she's already interested in bringing her granddaughters to the space and getting them continued support.

An open house will take place from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday at the center, located at 75-105 Merle Drive Suite 100. District 4 Supervisor V. Manuel Perez is expected to also attend.

The Olive Crest offices in Palm Desert, December 3, 2021.
The Olive Crest offices in Palm Desert, December 3, 2021.

Children, from infancy to 21 years old, who are Medi-Cal eligible will be able to seek mental and behavioral support at the counseling center. The staff will include two clinicians, a peer specialist, a parent partner and a program manager.

Referrals to the center will mainly come from the Riverside University Health System, but pediatricians and community partners can make them as well.

Tracy Fitzsimmons, executive director of Inland and Desert communities for Olive Crest, said Riverside County officials asked Olive Crest to create a counseling center for a number of years. The COVID-19 pandemic extended the process, though.

"I know that they have some really great support and providers in Indio, they have support and providers in Palm Springs, but Palm Desert specifically needed some additional providers to be able to fulfill the need that was growing tremendously, especially in this last year and a half," she said. That need, Fitzsimmons said, was increasing mental health-related illnesses and traumas.

Mental health has been a growing concern throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In January, about four in 10 adults in the United States reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, up from one in 10 adults who reported the same symptoms from January to June 2019, according to Kaiser Family Foundation.

Approximately 58% of children in the Coachella Valley who have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder are not receiving treatment, according to Kelly Duguay, Olive Crest's regional programs director for Inland and Desert communities. A community health needs assessment report from the Desert Healthcare District and Foundation also shows that 27.8% of Coachella Valley children (ages 18 and under) are living in poverty, more than national, state and county figures.

Specifically in the Palm Desert area, Duguay said issues many children face include food insecurities, sleep deprivation, a high rate of absenteeism in schools and up to 60% have experienced one or more adverse childhood events, such as abuse, neglect or incarcerated parents.

"I feel like we're going to have a strong impact in the community," Duguay said.

Unlike other Olive Crest programs that are field-based, the counseling center will be based on an outpatient model, where people will come in and speak to the individuals they need. If they can't due to lack of transportation — which Duguay said has often been "a huge blockage" as to why families have not been able to get treatment — the clinicians will go to them.

A counseling room at Olive Crest in Palm Desert, December 3, 2021.
A counseling room at Olive Crest in Palm Desert, December 3, 2021.

Children will do a series of assessments so that staff members can better understand their needs and craft a treatment plan, Duguay explained. Inside the center, there is a play area and a therapy room with bright and inviting decorations to help make younger children feel more at ease. Other rooms, with more toned down décor and furniture, will be used for older children.

In addition, individual, family and group therapy programs will be provided. The center will also offer crisis intervention/rapid response, case management, medication support and monitoring, intensive care coordination across multiple agencies, as well as intensive home-based services when needed.

A number of different programs are available through Olive Crest, which was launched in 1973 and came to Riverside County in 1978. Families experiencing a temporary crisis can place their children into a volunteer's home, certified by Olive Crest, through the Safe Families program. Fitzsimmons said these families typically include single mothers who may be experiencing homelessness or substance abuse or fleeing from domestic violence, but single fathers or couples can seek help as well. A program for transitional age youth, 18- to 21-year-olds who are in transition from state custody or foster care environments and are at-risk, helps place them into temporary living arrangements before they move into independent living.

In fiscal year 2020-2021, Olive Crest impacted 590 children and families in the Coachella Valley, Fitzsimmons said.

As Fitzsimmons sat in the new center recently and took it all in, she reflected on Olive Crest's meaning and what's most important.

"Olive is a symbol of peace in the Bible, crest for family, so literally Olive Crest means peaceful family, and that's the kind of outcome that we want to have within the kind of atmosphere that we want to do it within," Fitzsimmons said. "It's a peaceful place to see peaceful families come to fruition."

And as Hoag plays board games with her granddaughters, she knows it's possible.

"We are a family now," Hoag said.

Ema Sasic covers health in the Coachella Valley. Reach her at ema.sasic@desertsun.com or on Twitter @ema_sasic.

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Olive Crest to open counseling center for at-risk youth in Palm Desert