EAST LYME — As federal coronavirus money dries up next year, so does East Lyme’s funding for a part-time youth counselor it hired during the pandemic. But officials are hoping a new town-sponsored commission ensures the services continue.
On Wednesday, the Board of Selectmen approved replacing its Youth Services Commission with a new Youth, Family and Human Services Commission, encompassing all the town’s social services from the youth counselor to a social worker at the senior center.
First Selectman Kevin Seery noted that the Youth Services Commission’s structure was not in compliance with state law, making the town ineligible for certain grants that it will now be able to apply for with the new commission. Dan Cunningham, who will be sworn in as East Lyme’s new first selectman in December, said the hope is that the grants will help the town fund youth counseling and add more services.
“When you have a [temporary] source of funding like [the American Rescue Plan Act], you have to be careful how you spend your money so you don’t grow the budget,” Cunningham said, adding there is still a need for youth mental health services. “When you add a service like this, there’s always that concern about what we do when the money’s gone.”
East Lyme’s prevention coordinator Sarah Firmin, whose position is also partially funded by ARPA, said there’s currently a waitlist for youth to visit the counselor.
“This will allow us to provide more counseling services. We’re hoping to bring on another part-time therapist so we can start to get people off the waitlist,” she said.
Firmin said they also want to provide more after-school programs, day programs for preschool or homeschooled youth, weeklong summer camps, and additional social services in the form of energy assistance and food pantries.
Seery said East Lyme is one of four towns in the county that don’t have a human services agency, along with Salem, Lisbon and Sprague — which each have less than 5,000 residents, compared to over 18,000 in East Lyme.
“A town this size, we need to provide these services, especially in today’s world,” he said.
This year, East Lyme allocated $75,000 in ARPA money toward the youth counselor and prevention coordinator positions. In its first year, the new Youth, Family and Human Services Commission is projected to cost $179,995, which includes funding for a director of youth and family services, two part-time therapists and a wellness and prevention coordinator.
At a meeting earlier this month, Firmin told the board that the Old Lyme Youth Services Bureau has a budget of about $400,000, of which $90,000 comes from the town and the rest from grants and fundraising.
Firmin said the town would be eligible for a Strategic Prevention Grant from the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, which offers up to $375,000 for programs to prevent substance abuse or promote mental health services.
After the ARPA funding going toward youth services runs out next year, Firmin said the town would also be eligible to apply for a federal Drug Free Communities grant of up to $175,000. Receiving that grant would make them eligible for a federal Sober Truth on Preventing Underage Drinking grant of up to $60,000 a year.
Cunningham said the new commission is a “vessel” for the town to apply for grants to fund youth, family and senior services.
“It’s a need that can’t just go unaddressed,” Cunningham said. “We see so many issues in schools with younger people, and it’s very important. If we have to make some sacrifices from other areas to make this happen, I think it’s worthwhile.”
He acknowledged that being awarded the grants isn’t a guarantee, and that it’s up to the town to decide how much of its own money to put toward the programs.
“It’s always a balancing act, and we have to be very careful after we had a substantial increase last year,” Cunningham said. “But sometimes there are things that are really a necessity, and I view this as a necessity.”
Cunningham also said East Lyme should be more strategic in applying for grants, and suggested hiring a grant writer in Town Hall.
“Let’s try to get the most out of grants that are out there, not only in this area,” he said.
Firmin said she hopes the new commission will lead to more local program offerings, so residents won’t have to look to other towns for services.
“There’s going to be more programs for their children in town, for their grandchildren, and there’s going to be more opportunities for them to receive services,” Firmin said. “Whether they’re struggling financially or struggling with being able to provide groceries, or having counseling readily available, there’s so many waitlists right now.”