When the coronavirus pandemic hit Colorado in early March, Becky Clabaugh struggled to adjust to a new way of life swiftly ushered in by an unseen virus that shuttered businesses, closed schools, made some necessities scarce, required social distancing and wrenched essential employees to the front lines.

Her three children — a junior and a sophomore at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and her youngest, a junior at Air Academy High School — had their 2019-20 school year cut short. Her youngest daughter, a competitive springboard and platform diver, saw limited competitive opportunities with mass cancellations of sports events through the spring and summer, thus also limiting scholarship opportunities.

Clabaugh, a life coach and online business owner from Gleneagle, was angry about how the virus changed her family’s life — anger compounded by knowledge that she is at high risk if she were to contract COVID-19 because she lives with a condition that affects her lungs, kidneys and lymphatic system.

“I was really struggling with COVID and I was really angry. I’m always the cheerleader. I’m always the silver lining, and I just collapsed. I needed to come up with some resiliency so that I could be a strong parent for my children.”

So when Clabaugh heard about the Greater Resilience Intervention Teams program through a friend, she wanted to get involved.

Developed by Dr. Charles Benight, director of the National Institute for Human Resilience at UCCS, GRIT works with partners El Paso County, AspenPointe and the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Colorado Springs to bring additional support to those experiencing stress or trauma during the pandemic.

Through a free five-hour online video training, GRIT teaches El Paso County residents information and skills on general and COVID-19 stress, resilience, disaster recovery and small interventions to educate, support and motivate others during the pandemic and in future disasters.

Residents in El Paso County make up roughly 43% of the more than 850 people in 35 states and three countries who have signed up for or completed training to become a GRIT coach, Benight said.

The program was unveiled at the beginning of the pandemic in Colorado, when El Paso County Public Health Director Susan Wheelan, concerned about the physical and mental health of her community and the secondary trauma her staff might experience, pulled together a group of community leaders in early March to develop a solution.

“I did not want to wait. We will be in COVID recovery for the foreseeable future and there have been and will be multiple impacts on our community,” Wheelan said. “The pandemic has compounded the need for mental health and wellness resources.”

“Everyone has their own social networks, so why not train people who are interested in being positive reinforcements in their communities and provide them with tools and resources to do so?” said Benight, who has researched disasters and disaster recovery for nearly 30 years. “The pandemic is changing needs. How do we provide stability in a situation where there is so much instability?”

GRIT’s multitiered model is designed to work outward from an individual onto their social networks, the first of its kind to do so, Benight said.

“We know … social support is a key component of what happens as a predictor of success following a disaster or trauma, but no one has put together this kind of intervention system that would be supportive of that.”

GRIT coaches are trained to ask their subject what has helped them positively during the pandemic — for example, learning a new skill or having regular phone or video chats with their loved ones. When someone needs emotional support, GRIT coaches provide it.

Clabaugh and fellow GRIT coach Mona Contreras said after completing training they began checking in on their friends and family often.

“This is unlike anything any of us have been through before,” said Contreras, who teaches at Pikes Peak Community College and is a counselor. “We are going through (the pandemic) 24/7 and it’s changing every day. Things that were part of our everyday life are no longer happening, and we’re all going through something. It’s okay to talk about it.”

Clabaugh said the program inspired her to implement weekly happy hours with her friends on Zoom, a video conferencing application, to create opportunities to talk about mental health.

“It was super fun and it felt like there was hope,” Clabaugh said.

In the next tier are GRIT ambassadors, National Alliance on Mental Illness volunteers who receive extra training to better connect individuals struggling with acute mental health issues to professional resources in the community. Between 30 and 40 NAMI volunteers have already joined as ambassadors.

“When someone needs a higher level of care, GRIT ambassadors have the training to identify when it may be needed and understand the resources available,” said Lori Jarvis-Steinwert, executive director of NAMI in El Paso County. “A lot of times people aren’t well-versed in those resources.”

In the final tier of support are mental health professionals, a team of four community outreach navigators as part of a Federal Emergency Management Agency-funded crisis counseling program, said Mary Ellen Benson, vice president of community relations and business development at AspenPointe. Similar crisis counseling programs were also set up during disasters like the Hayman, Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires and subsequent floods.

The crisis counseling program will run for nine months, with the option to extend the program another nine months. It is expected to be fully operational by October, and will offer “solution-focused, strengths-based intervention” to help individuals build and manage their own resistance or link them to higher levels of mental health care and interventions, Benson said.

“There’s only so much that those four community outreach navigators can do, but their role is going to be critical to assessing, linking and broadening the reach beyond that with the use of our GRIT coaches and the experiences that we have with our NAMI peer model,” Benson said.

When the crisis counseling program’s term is up, Benson said county residents can still turn to AspenPointe, which offers its own crisis program, acute treatment unit, and outpatient services, including short- and long-term substance abuse and mental health treatment.

“The goal is enhanced community resilience,” Jarvis-Steinwert said, with an extra focus on reaching vulnerable populations like the elderly, communities of color, rural communities and other marginalized residents. Program partners are reaching out to organizations they know already serve marginalized communities and have GRIT ambassadors and coaches in those communities.

“We know that if you connect people with those who have the same lived experience, they can be more effective. … The beauty of GRIT is it helps people tap into their natural groups of contact. And in addition to supporting people’s resiliency, we want them to know they’re not alone. Every single person will have their own journey with COVID-19.”

Designed for longevity, GRIT is intended to be a long-term resource for residents to support each other in times of need.

“Being a coach reminds me to bring (mental health) up, even if it wasn’t something we’ve talked about before,” Contreras said. “I’ve found that people do want to have those conversations.”

“I love the self-efficacy of it,” said Clabaugh. “We can regroup. (GRIT) made me see that we are all completely capable of (supporting each other).”

For more information on the program, visit grit.uccs.edu.

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