Bringing health care to youth

For 17-year-old Stephanie Diaz, a visit to the San Antonio Health Clinic never seemed like a trip to the doctor's office. It was much more comfortable than that.

With student art adorning the walls and friendly staff assisting each patient, Diaz said the clinic is a safe haven for students searching for help rather than judgment.

"The doctors are really helpful," Diaz said. "You can tell them anything; there's nothing to really be embarrassed about. They won't judge you."

About half of the 100 students at San Antonio High School have utilized the medical and mental health services offered by their new clinic, which was opened last year by the Petaluma Health Center.

The clinic, which opened at the beginning of the school year, initially catered to San Antonio students but has since expanded to include students from neighboring schools as well as other community members.

This fall, the clinic will expand further by opening a second location at Casa Grande High School. In addition to a new location, both schools will also begin offering dental care next year.

"Dental care is a real area of need in Sonoma County," said Nurit Licht, chief medical officer at the clinic. "Adolescents and teens often fall off track in terms of dental care."

San Antonio Principal Rusty Sims said over the last eight months, the continuation school's student population, defined as "at risk," has benefited from the clinic in terms of improved attendance and academic success.

Diaz agreed that attendance was improved among her peers due to the clinic's availability. Students can make an appointment Mondays between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The clinic is open to other community members from 2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. those days.

"Students take the medical and counseling services seriously, because it's a chance for them to not miss school and be able to go to their appointment," Diaz said.

Sims said before his predecessor helped bring the clinic to the school, there was only one nurse on site just half-a-day, one day a week, due to budget cuts.

"Keeping them healthy so they can focus on their education is a good thing," Sims said.

Licht said that the clinic offers a wide range of medical and mental health services to students, including hearing and vision services, sports physicals, drug and alcohol screenings, family planning and counseling. The clinic, which occupies a modular building in the parking lot of the high school, is equipped with two medical exam rooms and a behavioral health counseling room.

Funding to launch the clinics primarily came from a federal grant of $400,000. In September 2013, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved an additional $150,000 for Petaluma's two school clinics.

Over the last six months, the San Antonio clinic has seen 52 students for medical appointments and 42 students for behavioral health visits, which doesn't include repeat visits.

"Almost half of the student body got some behavioral health service, which is the most utilized service at the clinic," said medical provider Darcie Larimore-Arenas.

Larimore-Arenas said the popularity of those services is in part due to the confidentiality offered. Students, she said, feel more comfortable with sharing their thoughts and feelings.

Both Licht and Larimore-Arenas said an important key to integrating well with San Antonio's student body was the assembly of a student advisory board, which consists of students who act as liaisons.

"They tell us what makes them comfortable and what things they want to see," Larimore-Arenas said.