July 07, 2015

By Luna Greenstein


At a fundraising banquet for their NAMI Affiliate earlier this spring, Wendy Wendt and her son Matthew excitedly waited for a video slide show the staff has put together. The video would highlight the reason everyone had gathered: HUGS. As the video plays, Matthew’s face lights up with glee at the sight of him and his mom included in the video. “Matthew felt like he was really special, loved, wanted and needed that day,” says Wendt.

Last year, NAMI Collier County won a $10,000 grant from the Connect4MentalHealth Innovation awards for Health Under Guided Systems (HUGS). The program provides a system of care for children with behavioral, social and mental health needs that focuses on early intervention and assessment.

During the beginning of the program, the families choose a NAMI staff member to serve as a system navigator. A system navigator is a guide for the family in all aspects of their mental healthcare such as doctor’s appointments, therapy sessions, etc.

Since the HUGS program started five years ago, it has served over 3,000 low-income youths between the ages of 3 months and 18 years old.

Each year, 1,700 new children are being screened for mental illness through the program, and an average of 24% meet the criteria for follow-up; 9 out of 10 of families want to continue on with the program.

“It has turned into a trend where families don’t feel afraid to get their children the help that they need,” states Kathryn Leib-Hunter, executive director of NAMI Collier County. Seeing that NAMI has been the catalyst for change with early prevention health care has been the biggest point of success for Leib-Hunter.

Wendy Wendt fell in love with HUGS from the moment she became involved. “They treated us like family and I was able to get the help I needed for my son,” Wendt says. “Anything we needed, they did. It was a perfect fit.”

NAMI Collier County is struggling to keep up with the need for system navigators as HUGS expands to help more and more youths, but the funds from last year’s innovation awards allow them to continue to grow this important program. The attention NAMI Collier County received for HUGS locally, statewide and nationally helped with both funding and credibility.

“The HUGS program is a model that should be looked at and implemented nationally. It allows children to succeed in all areas of life due to early prevention,” says Leib-Hunter.

For Wendt, she hopes the life-changing program is something that she hopes many others will experience and something that she’ll never forget. “I would be devastated if anything happened to the program because it has helped keep my family together,” says Wendt. “I would be lost if I had to go somewhere where they treated us like a number.”

This year’s Connect4MentalHealth Innovation Awards are just around the corner. The deadline for applications is July 17. There are four different categories of awards: early intervention, creative use of technology, continuity of care and service integration. Award submissions will be judged based on the program’s impact on the community, sustainability and effectiveness in building community partnerships.

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