By Dr. Andrea Weisberger, Director of Education and Early Childhood Mental Health, The Buckeye Ranch
I never envisioned myself as someone who would enter the political world. When my supervisor suggested I apply for a fellowship with Groundwork Ohio, I didn’t pay much attention to what it was, just that it was an important advocacy group for early childhood mental health. Of course, my answer to her was “Absolutely.” I love advocating for my clients, so I thought this should be right up my alley.
I went to my first Groundwork Ohio meeting and realized exactly what it actually was: all of a sudden, we were talking about politicians, legislative meetings, and how to best communicate your thoughts to lawmakers and legislative aides.
This is NOT what I thought I was signing up for,” I thought to myself. In fact, minutes after leaving that meeting, I texted my friends who are very engaged in state and federal policies and asked, “Can I do this?” Being the wonderful friends that they are, they said “of course you can!” But I think the better question would have been, “Do I WANT to do this?”
Fast forward a bit and I attended Groundwork Ohio Advocacy Day in March of 2023. It was a very nice experience meeting with other folks who have a similar goal: helping the lives of children and their families. On that day, I learned more about what I can do to help families in my community. I learned how to develop my “ask” and how to back it up with data and personal stories from the folks in our community.
I enjoyed the experience enough that when Groundwork Ohio sent out a message that asked for volunteers to attend some meetings with lawmakers, I said I could help. Luckily, because of advocacy day, I felt better prepared and knew what to say. With the help of the Groundwork Ohio team, we spoke to three legislative aides about the need for more funding for quality and affordable child care. I was able to tell stories about what I saw as a school-based clinician and how the lack of quality child care centers impacted our K-12 education system on a financial level.
Those meetings changed the entire trajectory of my work with my agency and profession.
At one of those meetings, Emily, a legislative aide for Congressman Mike Carey (R-OH), showed so much care and commitment to mental health. In fact, at the end of our conversation, she asked for a tour of our facility to learn more about our work. I, of course, gladly accepted.
I talked with the leadership at my agency who decided to take the tour idea and “run with it,” so to speak. First, we decided to invite team members from Google. Google is expanding in the Columbus, Ohio, area and has shown a commitment to being an important partner with other businesses in the area. In that effort, Google and Nationwide Children’s Hospital are partnering with us at The Ranch to build a psychiatric residential treatment facility with 48 beds. The project is a large undertaking and will fill a big need in our community as it will serve a significant area of mental health in Columbus. We wanted to invite those Google team members so they could further see how important our work is and to also see the location where the new building is they were helping to create.
We also invited Grove City Mayor Richard “Ike” Stage, to weigh in on the conversation and represent Grove City.
With the help from various areas in our organization, we were able to build an amazing event where stakeholders and policymakers could first tour our campus, and then have an open discussion with the teens in our care about mental health concerns in our community. Teammates from Google came and transformed our training room into a full conference space so we could have a meaningful conversation.
It was also requested that we have students from our day treatment program and residents of our residential facility come and talk about their experiences with mental health. Leadership at our school and residential campus ensured our clients felt prepared to take on the challenge.
The students did a beautiful job talking with lawmakers and stakeholders. Lawmakers showed such an interest in the teens, ensuring they felt heard, understood, and cared for. Rep. Carey even requested to speak with the adolescents afterward, listening to all their concerns and providing words of encouragement before they went back to treatment that day.
I was struck by the pride on the students’ faces to have such important people actually listen to them and care about what they were saying. They truly felt connected with and cared for. The students will still talk with me about the experience and how much it meant to them.
The day was such a wonderful success for everyone involved. I think it truly made a difference in continuing the conversations about mental health in our community. And the entire event was made possible because of the connections I made in my fellowship with Groundwork Ohio.
So when a person may say, “I’m only one person, what does my opinion matter,” I would point out the butterfly effect that comes from one meeting, one speech, or even one sentence. What a person says or does can set in motion a chain of events that may have initially only impacted one person, but then reverberates out to hundreds and potentially thousands of people.