Los Angeles Lakers’ defender Metta World Peace (formerly known as Ron Artest) brought an exuberant crowd of more than 900 Washington Preparatory High School students to their feet recently as he walked his towering frame to the front of their auditorium and stood behind the podium. As he began speaking, however, the audience quieted down and sat in rapt attention. He spoke of life, its challenges and the importance of seeking knowing they are not alone.
“Every morning you should wake up and ask yourself, ‘Am I on the path to reaching my goals?’ If not, you have to ask yourself some questions,” he said. “It is important that you overcome your difficulties.”
The basketball star came to the West Athens high school for a heart to heart talk with students about mental illness. The Lakers’ defender shared how he has persevered through his own hardships, including his parent’s divorce, living in the projects, overcoming depression and anger issues. Getting help and “having somebody in your court,” is essential, he told the teens. Peace was there to celebrate the opening of the Wellness Center at Washington Prep High School, an on-campus healthcare facility where students and the community at-large can receive dental, vision, mental and physical healthcare.
The facility, which will be run in partnership with St. John’s Well Child & Family Center and opens to the public April 26, will also provide assistance with health insurance enrollment. It is one of 12 new school based health centers that have opened in the Second District and a model for the way healthcare can be delivered with schools acting as community hubs. Opening school based health centers has been a top priority for Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who secured more than $300,000 in county funds to help open the Washington Prep Center. Studies have shown that schools with health centers have higher student attendance and less truancy.
In many neighborhoods and communities throughout the district, chronic health conditions such as childhood obesity, asthma and mental health disorders, are significantly higher than in other parts of the county. Chairman Ridley-Thomas pledged to expand health care in the district when he took office in 2008, and he has since partnered with the Los Angeles Unified School District, Compton Unified School District and community health clinics to open these centers.
“There is no shame in trying to get help when you are feeling bad,” said Chairman Ridley-Thomas to the students. “The wellness center is going to be your resource. We are taking mental health challenges out of the closet. It is hard to succeed when these needs are not addressed.”
With more than 34 percent unemployment in the surrounding Watts/West Athens area and nearly a quarter of the student body in foster care, many Washington Prep students live with stress and may need mental health treatment but either cannot afford it or may feel wary about asking for it. But at the Wellness Center, Los Angeles Unified School District mental health professionals will offer therapy, mental health consultations for individuals and families, conflict mediation, crisis intervention and psychological first aid in a convenient and confidential way.
“This connects the school community to much needed resources,” said Washington Prep Principal Todd Ullah. “Mental and physical health are paramount to learning.” Jacqueline Zendejas, a senior at Washington Prep, said she would like to study to become a registered nurse. Instead of missing a whole day of school to get to a doctor or dentist appointment, the center will allow students to take care of themselves in a convenient way, she said.
“I cannot explain the happiness this center will bring,” said Zendejas, who hopes to be accepted into Cal State Monterey Bay. “This will make life a lot better for students and for parents as well.”