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Care to Connect provides mental health support

Community-focused system includes help for military-connected and veterans

Water and snacks are meant for immediate nourishment, while other Care to Connect Kit items offer long-term life solutions. Photo credit: John Ferri

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The small, blue backpacks look unassuming enough, but the contents inside can be life changing for those in need of mental health help or other support services.

In addition to bottled water and food, each Care to Connect Kit comes with information on getting directly in touch with counselors who can quickly guide the recipient to appropriate care and services. When time is critical, this expedient approach can make a huge difference for individuals not sure where to turn.

"Connect Kits are a systemic customer service-based approach to addressing behavioral health," explained Sarah Luna, program director of the South Sound Military and Communities Partnership (SSMCP). "Using the organizations in place, staff are trained to ensure multiple needs are addressed at once. This minimizes duplication of efforts, leverages multiple programs and better serves the military-affiliated and general populations."

The City of Lakewood's SSMCP is coordinating Care to Connect. The partnership got the pilot project underway with the cooperation of the Lakewood branch of the Pierce County Library System and Timberland Regional Library's Lacey branch in Thurston County. The program kicked off with a successful initial trial phase from May to November 2018, during which 48 kits were distributed at four locations: Lakewood Farmers Market, Lakewood Library, Lacey Library and Nisqually Recovery Café.

"We started with 24 kits in August, and they have all been distributed," said Mary Getchell of Pierce County Libraries. "The program has been a success so far, and we are proud to be a part of it."

Distribution of the kits will ramp up again in January. Phase Two of the program will run through May, in an effort to hand out 150 kits in 10 locations. They will be available through Pierce College campuses at Ft. Steilacoom, Puyallup and Joint Base Lewis-McChord; the Tillicum and Lakewood branches of the Pierce County Library; Thurston Schools, via its TOGETHER! program; Clover Park School District Student Services; City of Lakewood Parks and Recreation; an undetermined Yelm location; and at St. Martin's University in Lacey, at its Veterans Resources and Counseling and Wellness Services centers.

The kit design offers a general template that local distributors can modify to best match specific needs with available resources in their communities. Overall, Care to Connect intends to increase awareness of and streamline access to behavioral health options by growing the number of behavioral health assistants in Pierce and Thurston counties.

While the kits are meant for anyone in the community, the potential impact for military personnel and veterans in our area is clear.

"Military-affiliated community members primarily live in the 17-plus surrounding communities of Joint Base Lewis-McChord," noted Luna. "Mission readiness requires ensuring our active-duty members and their families have the support needed for success."

Luna said the military obligation to move on a regular basis may make it more challenging for newly arrived servicemembers to know exactly where to get assistance, aside from valuable resources offered on base.

"Connect Kits provide appropriate military and civilian resource assistance to anyone regardless of military affiliation," she explained, "in case a community member does not want to self-identify."

In fact, the stigma of identifying as someone in need of mental health help is a big hurdle for many potential patients in reaching out to providers.

"Everyone has a role in improving behavioral health. We can destigmatize this need when we admit we all experience behavioral health needs," said Luna. "People can be involved with Connect Kits by becoming Mental Health First Aid trained, contributing to or distributing Connect Kits."

As Care to Connect grows, more community partners and distribution points will be needed. To find out about training, donation and distribution opportunities, or to get connected to services, contact SSMCP program coordinator Sarah Luna at 253.983.7774 or

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