Agency for Change- Katie McLeese Stephenson, Executive Director at HopeSpoke » KidGlov

Announcer:

Welcome to Agency for Change, a podcast from KidGlov that brings you the stories of change makers who are actively working to improve our communities. In every episode, we’ll meet with people who are making a lasting impact in the places we call home.

Kelley Peterson:

Hi, everyone. This is Kelly Peterson, VP and nonprofit creative director at KidGlov. Welcome to another episode of our Agency for Change podcast. Today’s guest, Katie McLeese Stephenson, is executive director at HopeSpoke, an incredible nonprofit organization that inspires healthy futures for children and their families through comprehensive behavioral and mental health services. Welcome, Katie. I’m eager to talk with you today and learn more about the great impact you are making for children, families, and the community, and the entire world.

Katie McLeese Stephenson:

Thank you, Kelley. So good to be with you today.

Kelley Peterson:

So, Katie, would you take a minute and tell us more about the mission of HopeSpoke and the work that you do.

Katie McLeese Stephenson:

Would love to. As you mentioned, we inspire healthy futures for children and families through comprehensive behavioral and mental health services. What that really means is that we work in a very individualized manner with children and their families and adults across the lifespan. We do that in a variety of ways through a variety of services in our community. We’re community-based, we provide outpatient services, we provide services in Lincoln’s public schools at the elementary, middle and high school level. We have an outstanding extended day treatment program for grade school aged kids. It’s 17 to 20 hours a week of active treatment. We have a therapeutic group home for adolescent males from across the state, and we provide mental health services at the youth assessment center and have been for over 25 years.

Kelley Peterson:

Wow. That’s a lot of mental health services, for sure. Can you expand on the role that mental health plays in overall wellness and wellbeing of children and their families?

Katie McLeese Stephenson:

Absolutely. I think it’s important to know that our mental health is a very important part of our overall health and wellbeing. If we are not feeling good emotionally, that is going to impact our overall physical health and our wellbeing. So, a lot of what goes on in terms of mental health is dictated by activity in our brain. Some people talk about mental illness as a brain disease, similar to another kind of disease being located in another organ in our body. So, it’s really important to think about how that interplays with our physical wellbeing, and also how our physical wellbeing can impact our mental health. If we’re exercising regularly, if we’re getting good sleep, those kinds of things can really impact our mental wellbeing in addition to our overall wellness.

Kelley Peterson:

Absolutely. I think when you think about that, especially something as simple as sleep, how much that can affect just your whole entire being, it’s so true.

Katie McLeese Stephenson:

Ask the parent of a newborn.

Kelley Peterson:

Yes.

Katie McLeese Stephenson:

And they can talk to you about how sleep deprivation impacts your overall wellbeing.

Kelley Peterson:

So true. I am the parent of a new puppy, and I think it might even be similar to that in the sleep deprivation as well. I also understand that HopeSpoke, formerly Child Guidance Center, is over 70 years old. Do you feel like over that time, the world has actually become a more difficult place for children and families?

Katie McLeese Stephenson:

I think it has in many ways. We were founded in 1949, so we’re 72 this year. We were founded because there was a recognition that children and their mental health needs were different than that of adults, and they needed specialized care. I think that even to think about my own childhood, the world’s a more complicated place than it was. There are a lot of reasons for that, but we can take, for example, social media and the age that kids get on social media, and their maturity level in being able to really deal with the ramifications of that, having their lives be very public and having people commenting on them. So, there’s things like that that are different than 70, 72 years ago. I think just our society has changed, and I think that there are stressors that children and families are experiencing, but there certainly are also a lot of ways to help and support them.

Kelley Peterson:

So, I’m sure that just because the world has changed, that this isn’t new. Some of those things are probably similar that were happening back in 1972 as well. There’s just a lot, and probably has for the last 72 years, there’s a lot of stigma out there surrounding mental health that causes society to look at people with mental illness, including substance use disorders, just differently. How can we stop that stigma?

Katie McLeese Stephenson:

Well, I think there’s different ways that we can stop the stigma. I think one way is by recognizing that mental illness and substance use disorders are pretty common. I think a lot of times, the statistic one in five is used for those that are impacted directly by mental health and substance use disorder, and I think post-COVID, when we get there, people are talking now that that number might be one in four or one in three. So, to think about if you’re in a small group, that likely one of you is facing this or within a family, you don’t have to look very far and very wide to find individuals who have mental health and substance use disorder.

Katie McLeese Stephenson:

So, I think one way is by considering how common it is, and then another way is what is our acceptance level and how do we talk about these things? How easy is it for you to say, “Oh, she’s crazy.” Then let’s think about that, and what does that mean, and what does that imply? Or schizo, or the language that we use is really important. So, if we can talk about these issues in an affirming and accepting manner, I think that’s really important. I think when comfortable, to talk about our own experiences, whether it’s ourselves or a loved one, and do so in a way that certainly doesn’t disclose anything that we shouldn’t, but also I think it helps. It helps us when Prince Harry and Prince William talk about the mental health services that they needed after their mother’s death. It helps when people that we view positively share their experiences. So, likely, sharing our own experiences can help a friend or a loved one to feel courageous to seek out treatment.

Kelley Peterson:

Absolutely. I was just in a conversation actually earlier today, talking about big-time celebrity influencers that have maybe stepped up and said some things about their mental health and how much that helps society just relate to this as someone I admire, and they too might be struggling with something, and that is helpful. I think that the other thing that came out of the conversation I was in was just we all have it. We all have physical health, we all have mental health too. It’s just a degree of where we are. It could be what we ate from a physical health standpoint, same thing. So, it’s not that there’s just some of us out there that have mental health. We have it. We all do, and we have it all the time, every day to varying degrees.

Katie McLeese Stephenson:

Yeah. One other thing that I’ll throw in is to try as best we can to use person-centered language. So, not labeling somebody by their mental illness, not saying, “She’s bipolar, she’s schizophrenic.” Instead, it is, “I live with bipolar illness,” or, “I live with schizophrenia.” You know? We don’t say, “She is heart attack.” “She is stroke.” We as people are made up of lots of different things, and to define somebody by their mental illness or their substance use disorder is really very limiting.

Kelley Peterson:

That’s a great point. Great point. For youth, predictability and routine are so important for them, and so when you think about most kids, that predictability was disrupted by the pandemic. Now, how has COVID-19 affected your work at HopeSpoke, Katie?

Katie McLeese Stephenson:

People who were already facing mental health issue, many of their symptoms intensified. So, people with anxiety and depression found themselves to be having even more issues than they had prior to the pandemic. I think the other thing that we have seen is that there are many more people who have never sought services that have been triggered by the events of the pandemic to seek services for their mental health needs. It’s hard to say at this point, was there something already going on or is this totally situational to the pandemic? But I think it’s hard to think about any of us not having experienced some anxiety and depression, which are certainly the most common forms of mental illness during the last many months.

Katie McLeese Stephenson:

The other thing that we have seen, as I mentioned, not just increased symptoms, but severity of the symptoms. We have seen many more individuals who have expressed suicidality than we typically do. I think particularly for youth, one of the hallmarks of adolescence is not really being able to put together behavior and consequences. They want the pain to stop, and so not necessarily being able to with their brain development and think through, what does that mean if I’m not here, and what is the impact on my loved ones? But I think we have seen, not only at our agency, but in our community and across the country, a lot more concern about self-harm and the potential for losing one’s life to suicide, which speaks to the critical importance of seeking services.

Kelley Peterson:

Absolutely. In addition to all the services that you’ve spoken about so far that you provide for children and families, HopeSpoke was instrumental in distributing emergency financial assistance to your clients and community members through the cares grant funding. Can you tell us more about that?

Katie McLeese Stephenson:

Yes. That was really an exciting project for us, and something new, new in that we are focused, I’d say, 95% of what we do is clinical in nature. So, this was more of meeting basic needs of those that we are serving, and those in the community. Early on in the pandemic, I think all of our agencies across Nebraska and the country saw how the pandemic was impacting our families. People are losing jobs, people are not able to maintain in their homes, they’re behind on their bills and things. So, we wrote a grant, and it was awarded to us by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, and it was federal dollars that came to the state for cares funding.

Katie McLeese Stephenson:

Our grant was $555,000+, and $250,000 of that was for direct economic assistance to families. So, if they were behind on their rent, if they were behind on their bills, if they needed gas vouchers or grocery store vouchers, we were able to work with them and have some financial proof of those things, and then we could pay a landlord for past rent, or we could pay the gas company or the electric company for their bills. So, talk about stress and mental health, to also have that financial burden is really tremendous. We were able to work with many, many individuals in that way. That was really great. In addition to that, we were able to provide some kits in the community.

Katie McLeese Stephenson:

We had one group of what we called COVID prevention kits. You remember early on where you couldn’t find a face mask or you couldn’t find hand sanitizer or a thermometer and those items, and so we were able to put together these kits that our clients and those in the community could utilize, and that was really helpful to people. We worked with a dozen other nonprofits to get them kits that they could share with their clients. We also did hygiene kits. We also put together safe at home kids, which were board games and different kinds of things. So, I think we distributed right at about 1,700 of those different kinds of kits to the community. So, there was really a lot of joy when people were able to receive those kinds of things, as well as the financial assistance.

Kelley Peterson:

Yes, so much positivity coming out of that, and joy for everyone around being involved in putting that many kits together, and you could see the impact firsthand. Well, it’s been said that the effects of the pandemic, it’s interesting being in conversations right now, because we talk about it being post-pandemic, but it isn’t post-pandemic yet, and I’m not exactly sure when post is going to hit, that word, but that the effects of the pandemic will reach far into the future. How do you see this impacting children and families in years to come?

Katie McLeese Stephenson:

Such a great question. I think it’s one that right now we are, of course, speculating about, because as you said, we are really smack dab in the middle. But one of the things we know from disaster recovery science is that there’s often a couple year impact to mental health from the disaster itself, if we think of COVID-19 in that way. So, for all of us, I’ve heard people say, “Well, they say we can not wear masks, but I’m not sure if I’m ready to do that.” Or, “They say we can be in social gatherings, but I’m not sure that I’m ready to do that.” I think all of that is super normal right now. We’re all going to kind of take some time to find our way in that regard.

Katie McLeese Stephenson:

But I think for kids and families, there’s a couple different ways to look at it. I think for some, I think this has been a time to really clarify values and to think about who are we as a family and what’s important to us, and it’s been a time to think, what do I let go of that has seemed kind of superfluous and maybe isn’t as important as I thought it was? I also think that there’s a silver lining perhaps in helping us all to think about mental health differently, because we’ve all been pretty up close and personal with mental health during the pandemic, our own and that of our loved ones.

Katie McLeese Stephenson:

So, maybe, maybe I’m hopeful that one of the silver linings can be that we treat mental health in a more integrated way, and also in a way that is more gentle and accepting. But I also think that the uncertainty that has been there, particularly for younger children, it’s not going to be uncommon for them to be worried about, is this going to happen again? You know? What if they’ve lost a loved one or one of their friends, family members? So, I think that there can be some more generalized anxiety about our health and about those that we care about. I think that story is yet to be told, and I think the important thing is that we look out for things and we make sure that we’re addressing them, and that we’re kind to each other in the process.

Kelley Peterson:

Give each other some grace. I think that’s also a theme definitely of the year. I too, Katie, hope for those silver linings. That’s great advice for all of us, too. No, you need to look at the positives and see those silver linings, but then also to be aware, just like you were saying, and watch for those things that could come up that may be expected or unexpected that affects children and their families lives to come in the future. You talked about so much of your great work already in the services that you provide, and then even some of those not common services that you put your entire staff to the test to do something like the cares grant. But you’ve done so much, have the effect of so much impact helping children and families to move forward. Would you mind sharing what some of the greatest stories you’ve heard that demonstrate the outcome of your work?

Katie McLeese Stephenson:

Yes. June is pride month, and HopeSpoke participates in the pride activities, and we help to sponsor, and we have a table at the event. A couple of years ago, I was there on a Saturday afternoon, and a young person, probably a young adult at that point, came over and said, “I just need to tell you that your agency saved my life.” Of course, my breath was away. They said, “When I was first ready to come out, I was on the brink of being suicidal, and I didn’t know how to move through that. The therapist that I worked with really was my guide and helped me to share my sexuality with my family and loved ones and helped me to see my value and to move past those feelings.” So, I think there’s no greater testament to the value of therapy than that sort of a statement unsolicited by somebody on a Saturday afternoon at a pride festival.

Katie McLeese Stephenson:

That’s just one story. I can think of others where relationships have been pretty fractured, and it’s hard for people to see that there’s a possibility of things improving. But I think with time and patience and trust and skilled clinicians, that we’ve seen a lot of healing that has happened at our agency. That’s always a very positive thing. One of the things right now, we’re engaged with a lot of telehealth services, and we’re able to provide those services through telehealth. That’s been a really safe way to provide outpatient services. Some of our clients want to continue with telehealth, which at this point we’re able to do and hope to be able to do with our funders into the future. But it’s also allowed us to serve some individuals that maybe aren’t just right in the Lincoln Lancaster county area. I think sometimes when you’re from a smaller community, there might be a little less privacy in seeing a therapist, so we have found the ability to serve individuals from outside of Lincoln and to offer some of that really sacred privacy that’s important to the therapeutic relationship as well.

Kelley Peterson:

Yet another silver lining for many people. So, Katie, let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about your story. How did your path lead you to this kind of work?

Katie McLeese Stephenson:

Well, I have always had an interest in social work, and I think I’m unusual in that at about 14, I decided that I wanted to be a social worker, and I never strayed from that. I think I was inspired by different experiences. One was in high school, I was big sister in Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and really found that to be an exciting opportunity to be a mentor. Then I continued that in another state in college. So, always had a special place in my heart for kids and for families. My sister-in-law, Suzanne, is a social worker, and when I was in high school, I got to go along with her to a graduate class at the University of Chicago when she was getting her MSW. That was really amazing.

Katie McLeese Stephenson:

Then also in my own family, my mother faced bipolar illness, and I learned so much from her and what was important in her health and wellbeing. So, there’s just a variety of different things that led me to the work. Really, I’ve had the opportunity through the state system and through private non-profits and through the judicial branch to explore ways to be helpful to children and families, and help them on a road to healing.

Kelley Peterson:

How lucky our community and HopeSpoke is for all of your experience and just your passion that started when you were 14 years old. What a great story, that you’re still continuing and doing today. As a leader that does difficult and sometimes heart-wrenching work, what advice do you have for other leaders who want to make a difference in the world?

Katie McLeese Stephenson:

Hmm, well, this is a mantra that I used with one of our sons, and I use it in my work when it’s difficult, or it’s scary, or it’s hard, and that’s every problem has a solution. If we think about every problem has a solution and our job is to be part of the solution. I also… I think this is going to be kind of an old person thing to say, but I think the older I get, I realize, in some regards, the less I know and how important it is to surround myself with other people who think differently than I do and who bring a different perspective and to listen well. And so I think that’s important too, is you’re part of the solution. You don’t have to have the solution. There are a lot of really talented, bright people that can help form a solution. And as the leader, part of your job is to help to create an environment where people can find their voice and they can share their voice and they can be encouraged to be part of the solution.

Kelley Peterson:

Very well-spoken as a leader. So I work within words every single day. It’s what I do. They mean a lot. And so I am inspired by motivational quotes. Could you give us a few of your own words of wisdom for our listeners?

Katie McLeese-Stephenson:

Yes, I will. I will try to do that, and I share that, Kelley. I am also inspired by motivational quotes. One that I think about is to use your gifts and talents to lift others, and I think that we all have gifts and talents. And so part of our journey in this life is figuring out what those are, and then that’s part of the equation. And then the other part of the equation and the more important part of the equation is what you do with that, and I feel strongly that what we do with that is we use that to lift others. And so that can be within our own families, that can be within our workplace, that can be within our community, with those that we serve, but really it’s about using your gifts and talents to lift others.

Kelley Peterson:

Love that. For our listeners who would like to learn more about HopeSpoke and about how they can support your good work, how can they find out more?

Katie McLeese-Stephenson:

Well, our website is a great place to look and to learn more about us, and that’s hopespoke.org, is our website, and we have a lot of good information on there about our leadership team, about our various programs. We have our inspirational stories, news clips, different things. And so that’s a good starting place. And then we’re always willing to speak to civic groups. I’ve had the opportunity and other staff that I work with to speak to lots of different groups, and sometimes we’re doing that over Zoom, and we hope in the near future to be able to resume doing that in person, but we’re always willing to visit and to share more about our story. We’re also on social media. And so following us on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram is also a good way. We try to keep those social media channels updated so that people can follow what we’re doing.

Kelley Peterson:

That’s great. And especially coming from a marketer, I second all of those vehicles, websites and social media for sure, to get the word out and to connect with people, because they are social mediums, and to have a conversation about mental health in all ways that we can and will help us all. As we wrap up our time together today, what is the most important thing you would like our listeners to remember about the work you are doing?

Katie McLeese-Stephenson:

Well, I think the most important thing to remember is that there is hope and there is healing and that there are others that are here to help, and HopeSpoke is part of that. HopeSpoke is part of a really rich and woven nonprofit community in Lincoln that wants to be there to help you and your family, and we’re a phone call or an email away. And so please know that whatever you’re going through, whatever you’re going through, it’s important that you’re here, and there are ways to get help. And so call us at 402.475.7666, or email us at info@hopespoke.org, and we will be there to assist you, and if we’re not the right service, we will work with you to find the right service. But you matter and you’re important, and it’s a benefit to all of us that you’re here. So thank you.

Kelley Peterson:

Katie, I fully believe that the world needs more changemakers like you. Thank you for taking the time to share with us today.

Katie McLeese-Stephenson:

Thank you, Kelly.

Announcer:

We hope you enjoyed today’s Agency for Change podcast. To hear all our interviews with those who are making a positive change in our communities, or to nominate a changemaker you’d love to hear from, visit kidglov.com at K-I-D-G-L-O-V.com to get in touch. As always, if you like what you’ve heard today, be sure to rate, review, subscribe, and share. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time.

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