In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s our privilege to feature an IECF grantee and fundholder, Oak Grove Center, as they rise to meet the difficulties faced by youth in our communities.
Children today are exposed to an increasing barrage of stresses that can impact their mental health. Peer pressure, an age-old problem, is amplified by social media, exacerbating the challenge for young minds to determine what’s real and what’s important.
Fragile living conditions, violence at home and school, and severe socioeconomic problems are just some of the prevalent conditions that place youth at risk for emotional and behavioral disorders. Add to these the isolation that occurred during the pandemic and a worsening drug crisis, and it’s no wonder a group of children’s health professionals have declared a National State of Emergency in Children’s Mental Health as they deal with alarming rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness and suicide among youth.
Even before these issues gained significant national attention, Oak Grove Center in Murrieta, CA, had been actively addressing them. Established in 1989, the organization began as a private, 24-hour residential treatment and education facility for children with emotional and behavioral challenges. Today, almost 35 years later, Oak Grove operates as a nonprofit, serving more than 1000 children and teens every year. Their comprehensive services include residential care, education, sports and the arts, programs for autism, partial hospitalization, and IOP (Intensive Outpatient services). They also offer the community-based services of Wraparound and Independent Living Skills courses as part of the THRIVE Program.
Tammy Wilson, Oak Grove’s CEO, has been an integral part of the organization since 1991 when she began as Program Director for the girls’ unit. Over the years she held many positions, including supervising the Clinical and Nursing Departments, before being named CEO in 2005.
Wilson began applying for and receiving grants through IECF (then The Community Foundation) in 2007. Later, the foundation offered an Agency Endowment Challenge which awarded matching funds to three nonprofits. Oak Grove embarked upon a successful fundraising campaign and was one of the grant recipients, establishing the Mighty Oaks Legacy Endowment Fund in 2017. “We’re proud to have an endowment fund managed by IECF,” says Wilson, “The fund supports our mission while growing a source of lasting support.”
Wilson remembers the growth that occurred when Oak Grove expanded from a residential treatment program with a non-public school to also being a provider of services to the local school districts. “The school districts realized that our kids, who lived on campus and went to school here, were making a lot of progress. They had students who were emotionally disturbed and needed help. So we began a day program with about 10 students, ultimately growing to 80-85 children. They come from all over – Riverside, Temecula, Murrieta, Corona – and attend a WASC-accredited school. That means students can graduate with credits fully transferable to a 4-year college.” Oak Grove has expanded with a second non-public school, Oak Grove at the Ranch in Perris, serving another 40 students. This year, Oak Grove will see 16 students receive their diplomas in June.
In 2000, Oak Grove added services for children with autism, then built four classrooms and therapy offices for the program in 2007. Previously, children with autism were bussed out of the area, some as far as Oceanside. “That’s a long time to be in a van when you have autism and severe challenges,” Wilson says.
In addition to academics and therapy, Oak Grove’s programs focus on character-building skills like teamwork and perseverance. Through sports and the arts, Oak Grove has provided their students with visibility in the community. “As the community began to be invited to performances, they saw the kids in a different light and realized they deserved a chance and an opportunity,” Wilson shares. A WorkAbility grant allows the organization to develop partnerships with community-based businesses for vocational education and job placement.
Apart from the main Murietta campus, Oak Grove operates satellite locations to serve youth, families and young adults throughout the region: Oak Grove at the Ranch/ Perris, community-based services in the desert, and Oak Grove Sanctuary/Palm Springs. The Palm Springs location is unique in that it supports LGBTQ+ young adults. “We’ve had several LGBTQ+ youth at Oak Grove who have turned 18 and transferred to our Palm Springs facility. Their families have often rejected them, so the Sanctuary gives them a safe place to land.” Recent events included a fashion show at El Paseo Fashion Week in March and house parties hosted by generous community members. Expansion plans include individual apartment rentals to provide the young adults with more autonomy and independence.
While much of their funding comes through state and federal grants and some managed care, Oak Grove relies on donations to support 100% of the enrichment programs like arts, sports and the Children’s Fund, as well as capital improvements. The Children’s Fund enables kids without families to celebrate birthdays and other milestones. “We took a little girl to Disneyland for her 8th birthday, and we had a 14-year-old who had never been trick or treating. These are activities that other children might take for granted, but some of our kids have never enjoyed,” says Wilson.
Another program, Culinary Creations, is a coffee shop and bakery in Old Town Temecula where Oak Grove students and residents learn baking skills and develop recipes for the Cookie of the Month program. “The more we can tie it in with pleasant memories from childhood,” says Wilson, “the more therapeutic the program becomes.” Recently a Culinary Creations student named Ryan created Trucker’s Legacy – a Banana Cream Pie in honor of his grandfather. The confection was served to 300 guests at Evening under the Oaks, Oak Grove’s annual gala.
Although there is an increasing need for services and greater severity in the levels of poor mental health, the Oak Grove staff is energized by years of success stories. Wilson recalls, “During my time as Director of the girls’ unit, I had one student who was suicidal. She made several attempts, was seriously depressed, and we had to hospitalize her. But we never gave up. She graduated from the program with a scholarship from Georgetown, where she became an attorney and went on to represent child abuse cases. That’s so gratifying. A kid you didn’t know would even make it, and now she’s a superstar.”
IECF has proudly supported Oak Grove Center with multiple grants since 2007. If you would like to learn more about their work, visit www.oakgrovecenter.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Direct contributions to the Mighty Oaks Legacy Fund can be made here.
Photos: 2023 Evening Under the Oaks
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