SHIRLEY -- Page Hilltop Elementary School Counselor Betsy Dolan came to selectmen Monday night with commitments in hand from the Ayer Shirley Regional School District and Ayer selectmen to provide partial funding for a child and young adult mental health counseling referral conduit.

She said the program -- Ayer Shirley MSPP Interface Counseling Referral Service -- would benefit both communities and the schools and made a pitch for the town to share the cost. Shirley's buy-in would be $6,000 over two years.

Aimed at streamlining the referral process for child and young adult (ages 0-24) mental health counseling services, the "interface" Dolan described would be provided via a contract with Freedman Center for Child & Family Development in Newton, an arm of the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, or MSPP.

Local Links

Tracing the genesis of MSPP, Dolan said it was established to connect children and families with needed and appropriate information, providers and resources "to serve their mental health and wellness needs."

Often an intimidating process that might end with callers giving up in frustration, the MSPP Interface provides a Community Resource and Referral Helpline to help callers in member communities cut through confusing red tape and bypass hurdles to get the help they need, for themselves, a child or a student in the school system.

The Helpline numbers, 617- 332-3666, ext. 1411 or 1-888-244-6843, ext. 1411, are available to parents and others in participating communities from Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

According to program literature, callers get "professional, personalized counseling referrals matched by location, specialty and insurance or fee requirements."

Dolan, who lives in Groton and has deep family roots in Ayer and Shirley, sketched what that means in practical terms.

In seeking a mental health referral, you might want a female counselor for a teenage daughter, for example, or someone whose background and experience fits a specific problem a child or young adult is struggling with, such as anxiety, depression, loss of a parent or divorce.

Noting stated preferences, parameters and insurance information, the MSPP referral service does the legwork, seeking out a match in your area and getting back to you quickly with particulars and an appointment lined up, usually within two weeks, Dolan said, sooner for urgent situations.

It's confidential and they follow up, she continued. "I've seen so many parents give up," she said.

But this service provides a bridge, helping them navigate a referral system they might otherwise find ponderous and impersonal or too difficult to deal with alone.

Sparked by a mission born of tragedy, Dolan explained that the MSPP interface idea gained local traction as one of the resources funded by TADS (Teenage Anxiety and Depression Solutions) a nonprofit organization founded by Steve and Deb Boczenowski, of Groton, who lost their son to suicide several years ago.

Funding is also provided by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

When Dolan first sought an MSPP contract in 2012, she did the fundraising herself, reaching out to the PTO and other organizations to raise $10,000. Now, she has the data to show for it. "Our families do, indeed, use this service," she said.

With the MSPP contract in place, referral services via the hotline are available to the community at no cost to "end users," she said.

Selectmen seemed receptive to the idea. No promises, but they indicated they'd be willing to contribute the requested amount if the town administrator can find money in the budget.

Dolan said her presentation had a dual purpose: To get funding, hopefully, and to raise awareness through news coverage in Ayer and Shirley that the hotline is available.

Asked outside the meeting room what would happen if selectmen can't find funds to help out, Dolan and ASRSD Special Ed and Student Services Director Teri Babetski said they'd scramble to find another way to close the gap. Their goal is to secure this valuable resource for the schools and the two communities for the next two years, they said.