A $2 million gift to Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) will help bring dedicated spaces where students can unwind and connect with mental health resources to more than a dozen Irvine schools.
Thanks to the generosity of the Tsao Family Foundation, 17 WellSpaces – a collaboration between CHOC and the Orange County Department of Education (OCDE) – will open on campuses throughout the Irvine Unified School District (IUSD) over the next four years.
Already, more than a handful of WellSpaces are open on middle and high school campuses throughout the county. These unique spaces are designed to provide students navigating an increasingly fast-paced world with a dedicated place to practice social-emotional learning skills. The spaces feature biophilic designs with a home-like feel to provide a space of calm, punctuated by mindfulness activities such as journaling, aromatherapy, beads and other crafts. Students learn breathing exercises and other techniques to help them build resilience and self-regulation skills so they may gain a better sense of control and return to learning.
“We are so grateful to the Tsao Family Foundation for their most special and generous gift,” said Dr. Michael Weiss, CHOC’s vice president of population health. “The WellSpace initiative is one product of an innovative alignment between CHOC and OCDE, two organizations with a full and complete focus on the well-being of our Orange County youth. The Tsao Family Foundation gift will allow us to bring these incredible spaces to students in IUSD – and we couldn’t be more thrilled.”
Thanks to the Tsao Family Foundation’s gift, new WellSpaces are expected to open by the beginning of the 2022-23 school year on four IUSD campuses: South Lake Middle School; Venado Middle School; Irvine High School and University High School. Four additional facilities are expected to open each school year on other IUSD campuses until all 17 are operational.
Additionally, the Tsao Family Foundation gift will allow CHOC’s mental health services team to work closely with the WellSpaces coordinators and other school-based mental health staff to support the development of targeted wellness programming to help youth better cope with daily stresses, manage difficult emotions, and promote full achievement in school.
In addition, CHOC will develop specialized educational sessions for students, teachers and parents to help support children’s mental health, encourage a growth mindset and develop positive coping skills. CHOC staff will provide training and resources to both teachers and school-based mental health staff to help support children who may be struggling and need additional services.
The CHOC team will also provide supportive group sessions to children who would benefit from additional support. Each school has unique needs and unique staffing already in place, so this gift allows CHOC the opportunity to mold resources to the needs of the schools’ students, teachers and parents.
“These WellSpaces and the accompanying services planned for IUSD’s secondary campuses will provide an additional layer of mental health and wellness supports for our students,” said IUSD Superintendent Terry Walker. “Investments in student mental health and wellness has been one of the Board of Education’s top priorities for many years. Our partnership with CHOC and the Orange County Department of Education, coupled with the generosity of the Tsao Family Foundation, is an extraordinary opportunity to build upon IUSD’s comprehensive programs, initiatives and supports, which are designed to help students cultivate skills such as resiliency, perseverance and adaptability when navigating complex emotions and experiences so they may succeed at the highest levels both personally and academically.”
Its largest donation to an Orange County nonprofit to date, this gift is very personal to the Tsao Family Foundation. Founded by entrepreneurs Victor and Janie Tsao, the organization focuses on religious, education and human services.
The Tsaos started their business and raised their family in Irvine, and their sons Michael and Steven are both IUSD graduates. As a child, Michael experienced undiagnosed ADHD and other learning disabilities. Decades ago, Michael and his family didn’t know there was a clinical explanation for his struggles. This experience impacted him deeply throughout his youth and into adulthood. Today, Michael is committed to healing himself, and the family is proud of his journey in recovery. His journey has only underscored for the Tsao family the importance and urgency of enhancing mental health services for children, shared Yvonne Tsao, Michael’s wife.
“When we learned about the WellSpace initiative, our family was moved. That students can have a dedicated space to find peace and mental health support while in school is incredible. We knew we needed to be involved, and we knew IUSD was the perfect place for our family to dedicate our support,” Yvonne Tsao said. “Children need trusted adults to support and nurture them. To support these shared efforts between CHOC, OCDE and IUSD is a true honor for our family.”
Early data already shows that the WellSpace concept is working to de-escalate students experiencing a mental health concern while at school. More than 75% of 470 students surveyed after using one Orange County middle school’s WellSpace rated their experiences with five stars. Students there also consistently report positive changes in their moods following a WellSpace visit, which can be self-referred or recommended by a teacher, friend or counselor.
“Through our partnership with CHOC and our local school districts, WellSpace centers throughout Orange County have been thoughtfully designed as safe and calm environments that allow students to decompress, reflect and recharge, which has a direct impact on health and academic performance,” said Orange County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Al Mijares. “Not only is this initiative emblematic of our county’s commitment to mental health, it is also helping to build deeper connections between our schools and families. Each WellSpace that comes online presents new opportunities for school staff to connect with parents and caregivers and to share additional resources and coping strategies, ensuring all systems are aligned to support the success of our students.”
Janie Tsao, matriarch of the Tsao Family Foundation, is also hopeful that WellSpaces will help families better understand the mental health needs of children. When she was raising her sons decades ago, she said, she was unaware of the challenges they faced. She and her husband were busy with their business, and mental health was seldom discussed at the time. But, today, as conversations around mental health have gained prominence, Janie is hopeful that the WellSpaces’ services, calming environment and focus on wellness will only continue to amplify these conversations in Orange County homes.
“We hope this can be a mechanism to bring more awareness to students’ families,” Janie said. “We want families to have more awareness of pediatric mental health and to feel comfortable having these important conversations at home. During the pandemic, the importance of mental health was elevated, but still so much remains to be done to help eliminate a persistent stigma around seeking mental healthcare. We are so honored that our family’s gift has the potential to spark not just conversation and understanding in families, but also action to ensure children of today – and tomorrow – have the mental health support they need.”
Indeed, sobering statistics around pediatric mental health spotlight the need for these facilities.
The number of child suicides nationwide increased by 15% a year between 2012 and 2017, according to a July 2021 study published on JAMA Network Open. Additionally, between March and October 2020, the percentage of emergency department visits nationwide for children experiencing mental health emergencies rose by 24% for children ages 5 to 11 and 31% for children ages 12 to 17, according to the Children’s Hospital Association (CHA). The Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department at CHOC has seen a similar rise of 27%, comparing July 2019 to June 2020 and July 2020 to June 2021.
In 2021, children’s hospitals nationwide reported emergency department visits for self-injury and suicide attempts or ideation in children ages 5 to 18 were at a 44% higher rate than during 2019. Finally, there was also a more than 50% increase nationwide in emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among girls ages 12 to 17 in early 2021 as compared to the same period in 2019, according to CHA.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated what was already a growing mental health crisis among America’s youth,” said Dr. Heather Huszti, CHOC’s chief psychologist. “The WellSpace initiative is a unique and effective tool to ensure we are reaching children when and where they need help. Having healthcare professionals, parents, educators, private industry and philanthropists like the Tsao Family Foundation working together to ensure our youth’s mental health needs are met is incredibly heartening.”