PALMER — Soon after Scout the golden retriever began his role as a comfort animal for Pathfinder Regional Vocational Technical School District, he became loved by everyone, bringing “a lot of joy” to the community, Director of Student Services Marina Latourelle stated.

Scout started working on Jan. 3 and has “been such a tremendous asset,” Latourelle said, emphasizing how the puppy “lightens the mood” and “opens people up” when he visits classrooms, meetings and after-school activities every day.

The puppy was first introduced to the community at the School Committee’s Jan. 10 meeting, where Superintendent Eric Duda explained that Pathfinder was the first school in the nine member towns to purchase a support animal.

Specifically, the district was able to purchase Scout through a healthcare grant from the Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association, Latourelle stated. This grant fully-funded the purchase.

“The kids love him,” she said. “It’s hard to put into words.”

Yet, Scout isn’t the only way Pathfinder is working to support students’ mental health. To Pathfinder, mental health is about “looking at the whole child always and making sure they have what they need here,” Latourelle told Reminder Publishing. This means providing “any and all support” and working with the community to address student needs.

One way the district has worked on this is through hiring specific staff, Latourelle stated. She said that Pathfinder recently increased the district’s number of guidance counselors and school adjustment staff in order to better provide for students’ social and emotional needs. The school psychologist was also moved from part-time to full-time.

These were changes Pathfinder identified after the coronavirus pandemic, Duda explained.

Other programs include the grade 9 emotional learning curriculum, which helps educate students on self-management, and the Student Support Team, which meets weekly to review referrals of students from teachers and discuss how to best address their needs, Latourelle said.

Pathfinder also utilizes Care Solace, which began three years ago after being piloted through a grant, Duda said. This program aligns with the district’s goal to “give students a level playing field,” he stated.

Care Solace is an organization that works with a person’s insurance to connect them with any mental health services needed. It is available to anyone connected to Pathfinder free of charge, including staff and family members of students, Duda said.

During the 2022-23 school year, 2,300 people used Pathfinder’s access to Care Solace and, since the beginning of the 2023-24 school year, 1,000 have already accessed services through the organization, Duda stated. Of the 1,000 people, many reached out for help with depression or anxiety. Nearly half of those who used the program so far in 2024 have been community members, a trend Duda stated he hadn’t seen in previous years.

Addressing mental health needs is “not static,” Duda said, stating that Pathfinder is constantly analyzing trends and working to be adaptable. He highlighted that, while COVID-19 drew greater attention to mental health, it has always been a priority to the administration.

The district is working to “embrace a shift in mindset,” he explained, stating that mental health is connected to attendance rates, student achievement and student happiness.

Duda explained that a variety of programs at Pathfinder support students’ mental health even outside of specific emotional need-centered actions, such as the availability of music, art and sports as well as the district’s “student closet” where students can utilize donated clothes free of charge and the district’s lack of fees, which he “could not be more proud of.” Likewise, the district’s staff is an important component. They are specifically chosen for their skills and are trained well, Duda said.

Looking forward, the Pathfinder administration will continue to review surveys and the district’s curriculum to identify areas of needed improvement, he stated.

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