On a bright, windy weekday morning at Thornton High School, 24-year-old health educator Claire Albrecht took a moment to praise the word-of-mouth that has made Kids First Health Care a vital part of many students’ lives.
“We see that in the amount of people coming back to the clinic,” said Albrecht, who also hears it in a student group she leads about physical and mental health. “It’s a safe space for students who otherwise cannot find care because they’re uninsured or have other barriers.”
Those barriers could be linguistic, legal or cultural, as with Spanish-speaking families or the growing number of Afghan refugees coming into the clinic, said Jessy Wulfekuhler, a pediatric nurse practitioner. And they’ve only continued growing since the pandemic began, making the nonprofit Kids First even more important for students in need of basic checkups, dental care and vaccines, but also mental health support and other services.
“Typically most visits are related to reproductive health,” said Wulfekuhler, noting that requests for birth control and testing for sexually transmitted infections are the most common. “But fast-growing is the mental health support — a lot, lot, lot of mental health support.”
The eight to 10 students who stop into the Thornton clinic each day are just the tip of the iceberg, health experts say. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study earlier this year found that 44% of U.S. teens report that they feel “persistently sad or hopeless” – up from 37% before the pandemic. One in five say they have contemplated suicide, according to Children’s Hospital Colorado.
The 44-year-old Kids First Health Care sidesteps lengthy intake and referral services to get kids the help they need immediately, coordinating with counselors and therapists and parents to support students’ total health. They now count eight clinics in the north metro area, including five school-based clinics in Adams and Weld counties. They serve all students in all zip codes up to the age of 21, regardless of health insurance or ability to pay, and they even help walk families through Medicaid applications and other complicated paperwork.
“Kids can’t learn and raise test scores for districts if dad just got deported, mom is only speaking Spanish at home and they have six siblings,” Wulfekuhler said. “We’re all about reducing barriers, so we don’t judge.”
Kids First, a recipient of The Denver Post Foundation’s Season to Share campaign funds, also dispenses with co-pays and deductibles to encourage more visits. They’re always growing, and almost always hiring, said Breanna Deidel, fundraising and communications manager.
“So many services like this are extremely rushed and the employee turnover is high,” Wulfekuhler said. “We’re very dedicated to giving space for comprehensive care. And even with all the challenges, we’re very committed to keeping it that way.”
Kids First Health Care
Address: 7190 Colorado Blvd., Commerce City 80022
In operation since: 1978
Number of employees: 50
Annual budget: $4.8 million
Clients served: 4,086 patients, and 9,656 visits, in 2021-22 fiscal year
The Denver Post Season To Share is the annual holiday fundraising campaign for The Denver Post and The Denver Post Community Foundation, a recognized 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, tax identification #27-4328521. Grants are awarded to local nonprofit agencies that provide life-changing programs to help low-income children, families and individuals move out of poverty toward stabilization and self-sufficiency. Visit seasontoshare.com for more information.
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