For many of the East Palo Alto students Karin Schlanger works with, she is the only person in their lives to whom they feel comfortable opening up.
Schlanger is the director of Grupo Palo Alto, a small nonprofit that provides "brief therapy" -- a model that focuses on solving problems and changing behavior rather than long-term psychological work -- to students in East Palo Alto's public schools. She sees most of the students herself, though interns, when they're available, help out. As a longtime East Palo Alto resident who speaks Spanish and has worked in the local schools since the mid-1990s, Schlanger can build relationships with students and their families in ways many other mental health providers can't.
Paula, a senior at East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy (EPAPA) whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, has been working with Schlanger since she was in eighth grade -- a time when she was "in a really bad place" in terms of her behavior.
"I was always getting into trouble, like every day, with teachers," she said, sitting in Schlanger's small but cozy office at the Garden Street school. "I was talking back and being really rude. My grades were pretty low because I wasn't motivated to get anywhere."
Before meeting Schlanger, she didn't talk to anyone about what was going on with her -- not her parents, teachers or even friends, she said.
"I didn't really feel safe to talk to anyone here but Karin," Paula said. "I can't talk to anyone here, other than her. She's probably the only person who's stuck with me through all my years here."
Paula credits Schlanger with a significant shift in her behavior during the past few years. Today, Paula serves as captain of the school's varsity soccer team, is student council co-president and is working on personal statements for her college applications.
Grupo Palo Alto's roots grew from the Mental Research Institute (MRI) of Palo Alto, which Schlanger said pioneered the family-therapy model in 1959. Schlanger started working at MRI in 1983, after arriving in the United States from her home country, Argentina. MRI also espoused problem-solving brief therapy, an approach Schlanger described as "very much about 'What's the problem that brings you in here today, and let's look at what you're trying to do to fix it that's not working so that you can do something different.'" She first applied MRI's brief therapy model to the treatment of anorexia, bulimia and overeating at the Center for the Treatment of Eating Disorders before going back to school to get her license as a marriage and family therapist. During an internship at San Francisco General Hospital, where she worked with Hispanic patients, she realized that brief therapy was "an ideal model of therapy to practice in a low-income community where the number of problems is just rampant." In 1998, Schlanger decided to approach the then-principal of the San Francisco 49ers Academy in East Palo Alto with a proposition: "I'm a psychologist; I speak Spanish; can you use me?"
The answer was a resounding "yes." Schlanger eventually officially founded Grupo Palo Alto in 2012. She has provided brief-therapy services at many East Palo Alto schools over the years, including East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy and its feeder elementary school, Aspire East Palo Alto Charter School (EPACS), as well as Cesar Chavez Elementary School, Los Robles Magnet Academy and, long ago, East Palo Alto High School.
Schlanger said that for 66 percent of the students her organization has worked with, their issues get resolved in 10 sessions or fewer.
Schlanger makes a point to involve parents in their children's work as much as possible; their engagement, she said, "makes the biggest difference" in effecting change. Many only speak Spanish and work multiple jobs, so having a therapist who speaks their language and is conveniently based at their children's school makes it more likely that they'll actually come in, Schlanger said. And as a long-term member of the East Palo Alto community, she's a familiar face for many families.
"This is why it needs to be within the community because if it's not within the community -- moms don't drive; when it's dinner time, they're not going to go take a bus to go talk about the family -- it's just not going to happen," Schlanger said. "But they might walk on campus and they might walk three, four blocks to come. They need the help, but the help needs to be accessible."
Schlanger also provides direct services to teachers on a regular basis. She's also frequently called for help during school crises, like several weeks ago, when a student threatened to bring a gun to school and had to eventually be hospitalized, or when a young female student revealed that she had been raped by a cousin two years ago.
"We have kids coming in every day asking for (Grupo), even though they know the days that they're going to be here," said Marcos López, EPAPA's assistant dean of students. "At times, we have had a lot of situations where we have to call them and say, 'Hey, can you please come in, I know it's not your day but we need you here because there's this situation going on and we need your help with it.'"
Despite the organization's success with students and families, Schlanger said Grupo Palo Alto stands at a financial crossroads this year.
Schlanger and one intern are currently supporting 31 students at East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy on a part-time basis. They can't see everyone each week, and the goal of including parents in therapy means every time a parent comes in, that takes time away from working with the students themselves. Funding is tight and limits the number of schools at which Schlanger can provide services. She said she has enough funding to finish the year, and then she will have a hard decision to make about how to continue.
Schlanger said out of more than 10 funding applications, a $10,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly's Holiday Fund this year was the only one Grupo Palo Alto received.
Schlanger's dream is to open a community clinic in East Palo Alto that would be open late for parents who work and provide space for not only Grupo Palo Alto but also other community services, like presentations on financial aid or English classes for Spanish-speaking community members. The clinic could be financially supported by bringing in therapists interested in training.
But, for now, that remains an unfunded dream, as Schlanger focuses foremost on getting Grupo Palo Alto and its clients through this school year.
Donations to the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund can be made at the Holiday Fund page here.