Forging Forward: Outreach Teen and Family Services

Forging Forward 2022 is a series of six articles about organizations helping our region make progress on the significant issues challenging our friends and neighbors. The series is presented with the generous support of The Pittsburgh Foundation.  

The #ONEDAY Critical Needs Campaign, a day of online giving to organizations doing vital work, is on August 9: mark your calendars and plan to be part of something great!

Resilient. Perhaps one of the most overused words of 2022. Whenever we seem to talk about our kids or young people in our communities – who are grappling with overwhelming issues brought on by societal and structural obstacles – we tend to say: “They’ll be fine. Kids are resilient.” But what are the emotions hiding behind a resilient smile? What are the behaviors masking anxiety and depression after a long day of doom scrolling online? How can we, the adults in their world, support them to build not just resilience, but a set of tools so they can face the world bravely, learning how to overcome adversity from a place of empowerment and strength?

Outreach Teen & Family Services has been working towards that goal for more than 40 years. Started out of necessity by Mt. Lebanon’s Community Relations Board and the Mt. Lebanon Police Department to address issues stemming from teens engaged in unhealthy activities in parks and around our schools, the organization was officially formed in 1974 under a grant from the Pennsylvania State Law Enforcement Assistance Administration.

With multiple programs focused on young people ages 5-21, Outreach recognizes that preventative services including mental health counseling, intervention efforts aimed at interrupting unhealthy behaviors, as well as family support services are vital to meet people where they are to have the greatest positive impact in their lives. When mental health services are not available and accessible, our society does great disservice not only to our young people but to our communities as a whole. With the ongoing difficulties around COVID, as well as the continuation of widespread gun violence, the organization has seen that need for support increase.

“Mental health may be the flavor of the month, but there is very little funding for it,” said Mary Birks, executive director. “I’m tired of the powers that be throwing mental health out there every time there is a shooting. Only 4% of people with mental illness are involved in violent acts whether self-harm or harm to others. It’s a convenient scapegoat and it makes the stigma worse. It creates this cloud and then people are less likely to get help or think they need help,” said Birks.

Determined to fill the gaps during the pandemic when many places were scrambling to find a way forward, Birks and her team of counselors, social workers and support service providers sprang into action, activating funds from philanthropic organizations like The Pittsburgh Foundation and Staunton Farm Foundation so that each therapist could secure a laptop and create safe and private telehealth portals via TheraNest to connect them back to the young people they serve.

“We knew we could help more kids and, because of these foundation grants, we were able to expand our services throughout the South Hills,” Birks said. The organization was able to fund a full-time program manager, create new programs like Mental Health Mondays at the Mt. Lebanon Library and started a teen-produced podcast: “Teens Tap In.”

“This is an important product because Outreach believes that one of the best ways to reach the teens we serve is through peer-to-peer connection,” said Maggie Zangara, program manager and outpatient therapist. “Teens who are comfortable sharing their struggles…and/or mental health problems can use their voice, which can be healing, as well as allowing other teens to relate.” she added.

Birks hopes that creating content like “Teens Tap In” can itself become an outlet to inspire other teens to discuss their mental health. And that may reduce stigma and normalize seeking help. Experts say talking about emotional experiences as valid is important for healing. It is just one of the innovative and creative programs found at Outreach aimed at wrapping around youth and their support systems.

Outreach believes in empowerment, education and prevention to help clients and their families successfully deal with the challenges at every age and stage of life.  This would not be possible without funding. Join The Pittsburgh Foundation’s ONE DAY campaign to provide support to Outreach Teen & Family Services on August 9. Together, we can create a healthy, more equitable world!

 
Learn more about Outreach Teen and Family Services HERE and support their vital efforts to support the mental health of young people.

Mary Birks, executive director of Outreach Teen and Family Services, photographed along Washington Road In Mt Lebanon at the organization’s offices. Photo and caption by Jeff Swensen.

Maggie Zangara, program manager and outpatient therapist at Outreach Teen and Family Services, began a podcast called “Teens Tap-In” which is helping to de-stigmatize mental health conversations within the teen community.. Photo and caption by Jeff Swensen.

Molly and Meghan Maselko, both 20, were clients of the program and now work with Outreach Teen and Family Services podcast while attending college. Photo and caption by Jeff Swensen.

Get to know other organizations doing vital work to help our neighbors in Western Pennsylvania by reading more in our Forging Forward series, presented with the support of The Pittsburgh Foundation:


Tech 25: The Future is Now

Outreach Teen and Family Services

Neighborhood Legal Services

Fishes and Loaves

Build the Community Center

Healthy Start

STORY BY NATALIE BENCIVENGA

PHOTOGRAPHY BY JEFF SWENSEN

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