“Pathways to Hope and Healing”: Mental health services for school-aged children

April 22, 2021
A little boy in a t-shirt sits at a desk. His right hand stretches out to the keyboard of a laptop.

By Amy Jones, Director of Marketing and Development, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Sioux City.

“Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.'” Matthew 9:14

Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Sioux City has been providing mental health services to northwest Iowa for over 75 years. Much of the diocese is rural, with limited access to mental health providers. Statistics continue to demonstrate increased need and suicide rates in Iowa are rising at rates higher than anywhere across the country. In 2015, Executive Director Amy Bloch and her team began working to eliminate two barriers keeping children from getting the help they needed – their family’s ability to pay and transportation.

Pathways to Hope and Healing was initiated.  It provides a free mental health assessment for any school-age child for early identification of potential at-risk students by school administrators, teachers, pastors or parents. These assessments are completed in the school or in the agency office.  Since the program’s launch, generosity from private donors and foundations has allowed Catholic Charities to offer an initial assessment session by a licensed mental health counselor – at no charge – for any student and his/her family.

The program addresses students’ behavioral mental health challenges through professional mental health counseling before they become unmanageable and a risk to themselves or others.

Amy Bloch, Executive Director, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Sioux City

The program was expanded in 2020 through a partnership with the Diocese of Sioux City Catholic Schools Foundation to provide onsite, long-term counseling services for students at 10 rural Catholic schools without a school counselor on staff. Joint funding by the foundation and Catholic Charities added a school-based counselor to the agency’s staff.

Agency Photo: Amanda Woodall, Spencer Sacred Heart Principal with Nathan Phillips

Early identification is vital to working with children and teens who are at risk of experiencing a mental illness, harming themselves or harming others. Unfortunately, children are often unidentified victims and, until something serious happens, do not enter social service agencies.  

Sioux City Bishop Walker Nickless serves as President of the Catholic Charities Board of Directors.  He says he is proud of the mental health services Catholic Charities provides to so many, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. “At a time when many fear to talk about these issues, we see a great need.  This is especially true for children and young people here in northwest Iowa.  Families are the foundation of our society and support for building healthy families happens because of Pathways to Hope and Healing,” Bishop Nickless said.

By providing high quality mental health care, Catholic Charities has the ability to make an impact. Nathan Phillips, CMHC, who holds the position of school-based therapist, said, “Many clients who enter therapy services via a referral from school have experienced trauma in their young lives such as physical, verbal or sexual abuse, volatile home-lives, bullying, were victims of crime, neglect, or a witness to a traumatic event.” Removing the barrier of funding and ensuring a convenient, safe and confidential counseling option allows children to receive professional mental health therapy to improve both their school and home lives.  

Teachers and administrators often refer a student for Pathways if they notice a drop in school attendance, lack of attention in class and to school work, or see signs of depression or anxiety. 

These children and adolescents need safety, compassion and experienced therapists to assist them in working through their pain and onto healing,” Bloch said. “Their families also need help with day-to-day difficulties which may otherwise lead to divorce, an inability to parent, or other types of losses in the family.

Families who continue therapy beyond the free assessment have access to additional financial assistance to pay for therapy if needed. Catholic Charities offers a sliding-fee scale and fulfills its mission not to turn anyone in need of mental health services away for the inability to pay. Gift support from parishes, individuals and foundations make offering these Charity Care Dollars possible.

Two client stories from Nate:


Anna’s father has been deployed for a little over a year and won’t return for another 6 months. This absence is heart-wrenching and affects her on a daily basis. If she isn’t able to talk to dad at night, bedtime is a struggle; if someone mentions the place he is deployed focusing on class gets harder; if someone mentions her dad’s name, she thinks about him and becomes emotional. Anna struggles with understanding the void in her life. She knows her father is serving the country, but she also knows dad isn’t there to tuck her in at night. 

Therapy is a place for Anna to talk about this absence, to process these complex emotions and find some light that can be hard to find. Anna and therapist Nate play therapeutically focused games that allow her to explore her feelings and emotions in a safe way. She’s found a way to be a kid while dealing with very grownup stuff.


Going to school with ADHD, as elementary student Kenny does, can be a challenge. Paying attention is difficult. Avoiding frustrating those in charge of your education is almost impossible. Kenny was often getting up from his chair and frequently interrupting the class. His teachers were not sure how to help him. 

Since starting therapy sessions with Nate, Kenny has only been removed from class twice. He now has a chance to express his frustrations and nervousness in a safe environment. Kenny has also learned to pay attention to himself in a more concerted way that allows him to notice when he starts to “feel the electricity,” as he calls it. He starts his new, five sense (mindfulness) technique. Kenny’s success can also be attributed to his teacher, who has adapted approaches to accommodate his needs. 

Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Sioux City was established in 1943 and has offices in Algona, Carroll, Fort Dodge, Sioux City, Spencer and Storm Lake. Catholic Charities empowers and strengthens individuals and families through charity, advocacy and mental health services. Inspired by Christ’s love and compassion, Catholic Charities serves people of all faiths and backgrounds and offers counseling, community outreach and school programs. Learn more at www.cathchar.com, email info@cathchar.com or call 712.252.4547.

Program Stories

Stay connected. Sign up for updates from Catholic Charities.