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Chico State

Thorpe Leads Throng of Chico State Alumni Caring for Community Youth in Crisis

A portrait of Michele Thorpe taken in the offices of the North Valley Community Foundation.
Matt Bates / University Photographer

True progress starts with the truth. When it comes to the state of mental health in youth, the facts are difficult to face and hard to ignore. 

In 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association joined forces to issue a declaration of a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. From 2009 to 2019, the share of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness had increased by 40%, to more than one in three students. Between 2007 and 2018, suicide rates among youth ages 10–24 in the United States increased by 57%.

In Butte County, the suicide rate per capita is nearly twice that of California overall—18.1 vs. 10.4 per 100,000—and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) continue to be reported at significantly higher rates than in any other county in the state.

Enter Michele Thorpe. Raised in Chico, she has always wanted to work with and support children. She graduated from Santa Clara University in 2017 with degrees in child and family studies and sociology before returning to Chico with a deeper understanding of her calling. This led her to enroll in Chico State’s master’s program in social work (MSW) at a time when the mental health crisis was amplified by the pandemic.     

Today, Thorpe (MA, Social Work, ’22) is the North Valley Community Foundation’s (NVCF) mental health and suicide prevention coordinator. She works closely with children and families in crisis, often at their lowest point, to help them locate and access critical services, and in the meantime, feel supported and cared for.

“It could be months before a young person receives the critical healing services they need,” Thorpe said. “It led to compounding trauma for these kids and their families. We needed something here.”

Historically, when a child in Butte County expresses or acts on thoughts of self-harm, tangible help can be hard to find. Butte County is not yet equipped with the necessary specialized youth resources such as inpatient care and facilities, and local healthcare providers are overwhelmed by the need. Thus, parents and guardians seeking immediate help for their child are often advised to seek services in the Bay Area, or even further away.

Searching for hope, instead they often encounter disheartening obstacles.

Building a Village One Yes at a Time (The CARE Team)

The Community Assessment, Response, and Education (CARE) Team—a crew that’s currently 16 deep and includes 12 Chico State alumni—is helping fill that gaping hole by providing judgment-free listening, compassion, support, and connections to long-term resources. The CARE Team provides a “yes” to those seeking help.

Under the leadership of President and CEO Alexa Benson-Valavanis (Journalism, ’00), and in response to the Camp Fire, the NVCF had already launched its Thrive program—an initiative designed to focus on emotional healing for children, families, and individuals. The CARE Team is one of the program’s crucial areas of outreach, and while in its infancy, Benson-Valavanis knew she had a candidate to be the program’s first intern: her one-time neighbor, long-time babysitter, and fellow believer in the power of people to make a positive difference—Thorpe.

When people call the CARE Team line, Thorpe is often the one supplying a “yes” to their most pressing questions. Is there someone who they can talk to? Yes. Is there someone who will help them? Yes. Are the services free? Yes.

“The hope we provide is vital,” Thorpe said. “And it’s just a team of adults who have put their hand up and said that they want to be here for these kids. We just want them to know that they’re not alone and that someone in their community cares about them.”

…it’s just a team of adults who have put their hand up and said that they want to be here for these kids. We just want them to know that they’re not alone and that someone in their community cares about them.

Michele Thorpe

Thorpe credits her time at Chico State, and in particular, Professor Sue Steiner’s class, with teaching her how to find hope when things appear hopeless.

“I think one of the hardest things about studying these systems is learning how broken things are and thinking ‘how can I help shift this thing that people have been working for decades to shift,’” Thorpe said. “(Professor Steiner) could take the most defeating, challenging areas of social work and present them in a way that left you inspired and uplifted in a tangible way. I learned a lot from her about how I want to carry myself in this work and to not personalize things to the extent that infringes on my ability to be a catalyst for change.”

This perspective has been essential to her work on the CARE Team, which is composed of highly trained and compassionate adults who are willing to walk alongside kids in crisis and help them forge new bonds, strengthen existing relationships, and bridge connections to long-term resources.

The goals are to get the young person connected and situated and then to have a warm handoff with a long-term provider in the community. Sometimes that process moves quickly. Sometimes there are waitlists or the handoff takes longer than expected. No worries, says Thorpe. The CARE Team coach will be there until the connection is made.

“We want to help build a village for these kids,” Thorpe said. “If there’s one significant adult that’s safe and supportive in a kid’s life, that can make all the difference. But of course, the more the better.”

The team is activated at three levels: one, when a young person experiences suicidal ideation; two, when there’s been an attempt; and three, to wrap around the immediate circles of a young person who has taken their life.

The work is as diverse as the children whose needs it attempts to meet. Different coaches have different specialties. Thorpe, for instance, loves to take kids on a stroll through the park or visit a local bookstore and coffee shop downtown.

“We want it to be fun for them,” Thorpe said. “We want it to be something they look forward to and we want them to feel comfortable.”

For some kids, that might be playing Dungeons & Dragons, and for others, it may be caring for horses. The CARE Team has developed several great partnerships with good neighbors in the community, allowing opportunities for children to connect with healthy adults who share their passions like art or skateboarding, or can introduce them to new opportunities like forest therapy.

These activities open doors for conversations that allow the coaches to assess what the child might need moving forward.

“We’re trying to surround the kiddos with a sense of community and connectedness,” Thorpe said. “That’s a constant conversation for our team. We’re really trying to meet kids’ needs in a whole host of different ways.”

A Caring Community

The CARE Team doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but they are a vital resource in our community. Thorpe believes that you can be as well, and offers this simple piece of advice:

“If a kid tells you that they’re struggling with something, believe them and make sure they know that you believe them. And praise those kids that reach out and tell you they are struggling because that takes a lot of courage. Affirm them for that. Thank them for telling you and tell them that you’re so glad they did and that you want them to tell you anytime they’re feeling this way.”

If you aren’t sure what to do next, text or call the CARE Team. Like a good neighbor, they will be there to listen and looking for ways to say yes.

CARE Team members who are Chico State alumni:

Ryan Fitzstevens (MSW, Social Work, ’13)

Sandy Gonzalez (Recreation Administration, ’03)

Santy Gray (Anthropology, ’12)

Marcus Hopkins (Liberal Studies, ’07)

Ryan Keller (Psychology, ’06; MSW, Social Work, ’19)

Dirk Lacy (Sociology, ’01)

Amber Lopez (Organizational Communications, ’15)

Ama Posey (Art Education, Painting and Drawing, ’14)

Veronica Rodriguez (Criminal Justice, ’04; MA, Social Science, ’07)

Jose Sandoval (Kinesiology, ’18)

Briceida Silva (Criminal Justice, ’12)

Michele Thorpe (MSW, Social Work, ’22)

CARE Team clinicians who are Chico State alumni:

Andrea Rioux (Social Work, ’92)

Dr. Sesha Zinn (Musical Theatre, ’03; MA, Psychology, ’05)

Those in need of immediate assistance are encouraged to call 911, call or text 998 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or call the Butte County Department of Behavioral Health 24/7 Crisis Line at 530-891-2810.

Anyone who is concerned about a young person who is suicidal can call or text the CARE Team for support at 530-783-CARE (2273). Please note that the CARE Team line is not a crisis line. Your call or text will be returned within 24–48 hours.