Nearly two years after Hurricane Michael made landfall in the Florida Panhandle, the Governor’s Office unveiled a $5.2 million grant Friday for the Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, Florida is seeing parallels to the devastating storm with mental health challenges arising as daily routines have changed and people spend more time at home. Reports of adverse mental health symptoms, substance abuse and suicidal ideation nationwide increased earlier in the year when lockdowns peaked.
After taking office just months after the storm made landfall, Gov. Ron DeSantis made hurricane recovery a top priority. Following Michael, a quarter of childcare providers didn’t reopen in the affected counties and the region saw a 234% increase in requests for mental health screenings.
“We remember when the storm came through here, I remember touring some of the schools that had been damaged, dislocated families,” DeSantis said. “It caused kids to be out of school. That’s a really traumatic thing.”
The grant, which First Lady Casey DeSantis announced in Panama City, will help the coalition rebuild infrastructure, playgrounds and within childcare facility. Another purpose is to provide telemental health services, a new focus emerging from the pandemic.
“As we’re in this pandemic, we’re really realizing that this is an invaluable tool for a lot of people to access mental health needs because this has taken such a toll on so many people,” she said. “When you look at it now as something, a resource, you can have right on your phone, it’s really a game changer for a lot of people to get the help that they need.”
Telehealth services provide more options for people to “get things off their chest,” which she added makes a difference in improving mental health. The grant will also help families without insurance access services.
“You don’t want to ever say that there’s a silver lining to something so awful as a pandemic, but the silver lining is now that we can use these telemental health services more than ever before, and we can get it into the hands of more people,” she said.
Casey DeSantis has taken a leading role within her husband’s administration on mental health services and children. Throughout the pandemic, she has repeatedly appeared alongside the Governor as the state’s focus shifted toward tackling mental health challenges, including hosting her own panels on children and schools.
“She doesn’t have to do a lot of this stuff. This is not required of the First Lady to do any of the stuff she’s done,” the Governor said, “but she has an opportunity to really make a difference. So she’s really taken the bull by the horns particularly as it relates to things like children and like mental health.”
The grant will also allow the coalition to launch Operation Kaleidoscope to tackle childcare infrastructure and mental health needs of young children linked to Hurricane Michael.
The Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida administers the School Readiness and Voluntary Prekindergarten Programs for Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, and Washington counties. Approximately $450,000 will be shared with counties neighboring the coalition’s region.
“Our area is still experiencing trauma from Hurricane Michael and our young children are especially vulnerable,” said the coalition’s Executive Director Suzan Gage. “Funding made available from this grant will help bring in programs and services to ensure that recovery continues. Together, with the help of state and local partners, we will ensure that our youngest children thrive despite the obstacles they are facing.”
Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran thanked the First Couple for prioritizing students with the latest grant.
“Ensuring our youngest children get the services they need is critical to their long-term success in school and in life, and ensuring children have providers who can support those early years so parents can work is important to the well-being of Florida’s families and communities,” he said.
Saturday marks the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Michael’s landfall. In light of the ongoing recovery, the Governor said the region has weathered the pandemic particularly well.
COVID-19 virus outbreaks didn’t strike the Panhandle like it did more populous parts of the state. The region has also been on the leading end of the reopening process. The first counties cleared to reopen vacation rentals were Northwest Florida counties.
For the announcement, the First Couple stood before a line of service providers, lawmakers and state officials crowded shoulder-to-shoulder standing maskless in the coalition’s regional headquarters.
“I think that you guys have shown you’ve got to keep your society moving, got to have kids — they need to be able to be in school if that’s what the parents want, you’ve got to have people working and you’ve got to have businesses open,” the Governor said. “I think that you have really struck a good balance that really should be an envy to places around our state and around our country.”
Friday’s touring squad will also visit Calhoun Liberty Hospital in Blountstown.