Sarkeys Foundation Awards $400,000 to Support Behavioral Health Improvements throughout Oklahoma City Public Schools

Sarkeys Foundation will award $400,000 to support behavioral health improvements throughout Oklahoma City Public Schools through EmbraceOKC, a comprehensive approach to achieve maximum social and emotional well-being for students and their families through school-based mental health services including awareness, prevention, early intervention and treatment.

Launched in 2019, EmbraceOKC is a collaborative initiative of the Oklahoma City Public Schools Compact, which is a group of community partners including Oklahoma City Public Schools, Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, the Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools, United Way of Central Oklahoma and the City of Oklahoma City.

As students throughout Oklahoma City Public Schools continue to adjust to a new normal amid the COVID-19 pandemic, district superintendent Dr. Sean McDaniel says the need for mental health support in the schools is at an all-time high.

“Under normal circumstances, we know many of our students face challenges in their personal and family lives,” Dr. McDaniel said. “For some, their friends and teachers at school are the only support system they have. Since they have been away from school since mid-March, we must step up our game and provide them with the emotional support they need to return to learning.”

Oklahoma City Public School District Superintendent Dr. Sean McDaniel. Photo provided by Greater Oklahoma City Chamber

A recent report from the Oklahoma-based Healthy Minds Policy Initiative projects that childhood mental health needs will increase substantially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, as many as 30 percent of children involved in quarantines may experience post-traumatic stress disorder, a rate that is seven times higher than that of children who do not experience quarantine.

“With the heavy toll the COVID-19 pandemic continues to place on our community, Sarkeys Foundation believes that supporting the emotional wellness of our children and providing a safe, healthy environment for them to learn is a top priority,” said Kim Henry, executive director of Sarkeys Foundation.

The behavioral health impact of COVID-19 coupled with findings from the National Survey of Children’s Health that Oklahoma children already suffer more trauma than those in any other state, underscore the critical need for school-based mental health support throughout Oklahoma City Public Schools.

The EmbraceOKC district-wide action plan aims to not only increase the number of school counselors in Oklahoma City Public Schools, but also to provide evidence-based training to teachers and support staff to help them identify behavioral health issues so they can intervene and connect the student and family with support services. In addition, EmbraceOKC will provide for the implementation of social and emotional learning programs to support and strengthen well-being among students and educators.

“Over the summer, we began staff training in various prevention strategies including behavioral health first aid, trauma awareness and intervention,” said Dr. McDaniel. “With our plan to resume school virtually for the first nine weeks, we are working hard to ensure we can address students’ mental, social and emotional health through our remote and online learning plans.”

While implementation of EmbraceOKC components has already begun, the Oklahoma City Public Schools Compact is seeking additional donations to fully fund the comprehensive mental health initiative.

“Funding for EmbraceOKC and behavioral health support for our students is a critical need for our community,” said Debby Hampton, president and CEO of United Way of Central Oklahoma, which is administering funding for EmbraceOKC. “We commend the Oklahoma City Public Schools Board of Education for leading the way on this initiative, as well as the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber and other community partners for their generous support. Our community and the well-being of its children will be forever improved due to this collaborative effort.”

To make a donation to EmbraceOKC, text Embrace to 40403 or call United Way of Central Oklahoma at 405-236-8441.