ATLANTIC CITY — When Ralia Williams was a freshman at Atlantic City High School, her aunt recommended she see school counselors for her anger issues.
Now a 17-year-old senior, the Atlantic City native can’t stop smiling.
“Of course, at first, I didn’t exactly want to do it ‘cause I’m like, ‘There’s nothing wrong with me,’” Williams said.
It took a little convincing, but after a while, she noticed her moods were getting lighter.
“I’m more happy. I’m smiling all the time,” she said. “I wasn’t exactly around positive people, so once I came around positive people, my whole demeanor changed.”
In a county considered a hot spot for mental health issues by the New Jersey Hospital Association, and a city with more than 40 percent of its residents living below the poverty line, early intervention is critical.
A recent study out of Rutgers Camden found adverse childhood experiences — more common among low-income households — can spur mental health disorders in young people. But, when addressed early enough, healthy family dynamics and civic engagement can mitigate their effects.
The AtlantiCare Teen Center, located in the high school, is just one effort to intervene at a key point in young people’s development — including one-on-one counseling and group therapy sessions — with easy access and no cost.
AtlantiCare’s Behavioral Health department manages three other Teen Centers in Atlantic County, at Buena Regional High School, Buena Regional Middle School and Oakcrest High School. All are free to students, and all teenagers in Atlantic City, but there’s a clinical aspect to Atlantic City’s program that is unique: On site, an advanced practice nurse, a nurse and a case manager see students for sick visits, physicals, STD and pregnancy tests, and more.
In his 20 years as director of the high school’s program, Craig Cochran said he has seen students gradually open up to the idea of vulnerability and facing their issues head on, namely the often-coupled depression and anxiety.
“I feel like there’s less stigma around it because it’s been so prevalent and there’s been so many students who maybe have seen their friends struggle with some things and so they’re more open to trying to get help,” Cochran said, “not only for their friends, but for themselves when they see it.”
Williams sees it, too.
“I know I’m more open. People that I know are more open about talking to others about themselves,” Williams said. “If you have a mental health (issue), then you need to be able to talk to someone because holding all that stuff in, it’s just like when you want to cry and you’re holding tears in. You’re gonna break sooner or later.”
The Teen Center also has an eight-week violence prevention program that students are referred to. The center is open until 4 p.m. And while Cochran said the school has a late bus, he thinks the fact that the school is not centrally located in the city could be an access issue. Still, many students see the center as their primary care.
“Our wait times are almost nonexistent,” Cochran said. “They’ll see a doctor and go right back to class.”
For adult residents out of work or with low incomes, getting help can be more difficult; seeing a psychologist can be cost-prohibitive.
The Hospital Association found Atlantic County has the third-highest rate in the state of people visiting emergency rooms for mental health issues or crises.
“We all know that, no matter how well-intended any clinician is in that emergency department, that setting is not the place for someone who doesn’t need it,” said Mary Ditri, director of professional practice for the Hospital Association. “It would (benefit) all of us to kind of understand what the community landscape is to help folks get into care, to support them so they don’t end up in crisis.”
The Mental Health Association of Atlantic County offers free group therapy sessions in settings like church basements, run by peers — trained staffers and volunteers who suffer from mental health disorders themselves — and one-on-one counseling.
Carolyn Quinn, who manages MHAAC’s Individuals Concerted in Effort program, said there’s no pressure to show up for appointments, as opposed to a clinical setting.
“That’s very unique, to come when you need us, come as you are,” Quinn said.
Having peers run the counseling sessions, Quinn said, makes joining one less of a hurdle for many.
And free is important, Quinn said, because while mental health issues impact people of all levels of wealth and socioeconomic status, being poor can make accessing help a wide chasm to clear.
Williams, also the president of the Youth Council with Atlantic City’s NAACP chapter, considers the staff at the Teen Center her “second family.”
She is considering a career in nursing or mental health services, and has applied for programs at Stockton University, Rowan University, Morgan State University and Atlantic Cape Community College. She doesn’t feel she needs regular counseling sessions at the moment, but she is heavily involved with the center and tries to evangelize its merits to her classmates.
“And then they get annoyed, but I’m like, ‘I don’t care,’” she said, laughing. “‘You’re gonna listen to me.’”
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ABSECON — Kelly Walsh feels close to her dad, Bill, when she walks the hallways of Holy Spirit High School.
Bill isn’t much of a physical presence at Spirit these days, but his soul fills the school.
Bill was the Spartans’ head football coach from 2003-07 and assistant from 2014-17. He was the school’s director of institutional advancement while head football coach.
He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — in early 2017. Bill has lost weight. He can’t talk and must use a feeding tube.
Kelly, 17, is a Spirit junior and a field hockey and softball player.
“When I was younger, I knew he was a big part of Holy Spirit,” Kelly said of her dad. “But I never realized how much of an impact he has here. I come to school, and I feel safe. I feel like he’s here.”
MARGATE — In life, as in football, Holy Spirit High School assistant coach Bill Walsh believes teams need five qualities to achieve success.
“The support we have is so humbling,” Kelly said. “But I think right now more than ever we need help. We need everyone to come together.”
A 1985 graduate, Walsh played quarterback and middle linebacker for the Spartans. The only thing those two positions have in common is that the quarterback leads the offense, while the middle linebacker leads the defense.
Holy Spirit was floundering when Walsh took over as head football coach in 2003. He pumped life back into the school by winning games on the field and raising funds off it.
“The best thing we can do now is everything he taught us: keep fighting,” said Joe Farrow, a 2005 Spirit graduate who grew up with the Walsh family.
Kelly is the only child of Bill and his wife, Cindy. But Farrow is like her brother. Farrow played for Walsh at Spirit. He came from a rough home life, so Walsh took him into his Galloway Township home.
Farrow, 33, now works as a federal corrections officer in Philadelphia and lives in Mays Landing with his wife, Gianna, and his 2-year-old daughter, Ava.
“He raised me,” Farrow said. “The hardest thing is to sit there and watch a guy who took care of you and made sure I was OK, now all I want to do is make sure he’s OK, and I don’t have any control over how to do that.”
The Holy Spirit High School football team wanted to retire Bill Walsh’s number.
Bill went for multiple tests and saw multiple doctors before the ALS diagnosis was made. He and Cindy broke the news to Kelly at a family dinner.
“He said, ‘It’s pretty sure we have ALS,’” Kelly said. “He’s always been such a positive person. I don’t think he knew how to explain to me, and how does one 14- or 15-year-old daughter take that? It was a lot to take in at once.”
Farrow and Kelly are in constant communication with each other. Kelly often researches ALS online to see whether there’s any new treatments.
“We’re always trying to figure out what’s new,” she said.
Bill’s treatments are expensive. The disease has taken its toll.
The ALS struck first in his chest and throat, making eating impossible.
But Bill still rises early most days, just like he used to. He spends time on the computer or reading.
He gets outside as much as possible, sometime sitting on a swing in the backyard and listening to music on headphones.
“He’s always listening to music,” Kelly said. “he listens to all kinds of stuff — country music, sometimes some sad songs.”
I can still remember those muggy days in August over a decade ago.
Bill doesn’t want the people around him to be upset. It’s hard for him to even ask for help.
Kelly and Joe are speaking out now about what Bill is going through in part because so many people want to know how he’s doing and to raise attention for the fundraiser. Bill can’t have too many visitors.
“His love is still strong,” Farrow said. “He’s like an elephant. He doesn’t forget. If you sent him a text five years ago, he doesn’t forget it.”
Last season, Bill sat in his truck and watched Kelly play. This season, in his current condition, that might be difficult, but the family plans to record or take photos of games to show Bill at home.
“Field hockey and especially softball are such an escape,” Kelly said. “It helps so much.”
Bill’s primary message as a coach to his players was that they had to learn how to handle adversity. That message got through to Kelly. She says she’s learning something new every day about life and how to face its challenges. Spirit softball coach Steve Normane said Kelly is focused at practice but also knows when to crack a joke to lighten things up when the team needs it. Like her dad, Normane said, Kelly is a tenacious competitor.
Eagles quarterback Nick Foles joined another team a few days ago.
“She’s not just getting through things,” Normane said. “She’s enjoying everything.”
Meanwhile, Bill’s actions now speak louder than his words. He is showing the Holy Spirit community how to persevere through adversity.
“I think everybody has realized who he truly is because of this battle,” Kelly said. “He’s constantly fighting. He’s not giving up. He’s looking forward. He’s looking ahead.”
ATLANTIC CITY — Visitation, casino employment, gaming revenue and state taxes and fees increased in 2018, all of which is real evidence that after several down years, the seaside resort is rebounding.
But there are also variables at play that lend credence to the thought that Atlantic City’s historic year may not translate to long-term success, according to experts.
In 2018, Atlantic City saw a 4 percent uptick in vehicle traffic, a 3.6 percent increase in employment, an 8 percent increase in annual gaming revenue and more than $243 million in taxes and fees collected by the state.
“I would look at these numbers from 2018 as a positive for us as a destination,” said Rummy Pandit, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism at Stockton University. “Overall, the trends look positive to me.”
The addition of two casino properties — Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City and Ocean Resort Casino — in June had a major impact on all of those numbers, according to experts. But the city’s economic growth extended beyond casinos, Pandit said.
“There’s non-gaming growth taking place, which then leads to other economic growth in the (region),” he said, citing development in areas such as Tennessee Avenue and the Boardwalk. “Every day, there’s something new that’s added, and that something new is, in turn, generating revenue and employment for (Atlantic City).”
However, the absence of rail service for a quarter of the year, seasonal and temporary jobs at the new casino properties, the continued growth of online gambling and additional taxes due to sports betting could each artificially distort some of the positive numbers for Atlantic City in 2018.
For example, total traffic on the Atlantic City Expressway increased in 2018 compared to the previous year, from 18.5 million to 19.24 million, according to the South Jersey Transportation Authority.
Anthony Marino, a local analyst and former deputy executive director of New Jersey Expressway Authority, said that while visitation was “clearly up” based on the data, the total picture is incomplete because it does not include vehicle traffic numbers from either the Black Horse or White Horse pikes.
And the number of vehicles tracked at the Pleasantville toll plaza increased substantially after NJ Transit shut down the Atlantic City Rail Line in September, Marino said.
“We know that part of that (increase) was caused by the closing of the railroad,” he said. “I think that’s a reflection of workers and tourists that used to use the railroad, now were using the Atlantic City Expressway.”
Prior to the rail line’s closure, the SJTA had been keeping track of ridership. Since 2011, the number of passengers on the line had decreased every year, including a 9.2 percent decline between 2016 and 2017, and dipped below 1 million annual riders before its closure.
ATLANTIC CITY — The city is making incremental progress toward economic stability, but its long-term fiscal health remains a cause for concern.
New Jersey imposed an 8.5 percent tax on sports wagers placed inside an Atlantic City casino and a 13 percent tax on online or mobile betting. An additional 1.25 percent tax was signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy, with those proceeds going directly to the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority for marketing.
Meanwhile, online casino gaming is taxed at 15 percent.
“Two entities are clearly benefiting — the state, through its new taxation on new revenues, and the casinos,” said Marino. “The third entity, Atlantic City, I think the jury is still out whether these visitor numbers can be sustained.”
ATLANTIC CITY — Stockton University’s arrival — or rather its return — will have a long-term positive impact on the local economy, but officials caution against overly optimistic ideas that it will radically reshape the city’s fortunes.
But even online gaming and sports betting are not increasing employment in Atlantic City in proportion to the revenue being generated. According to a 2017 annual report from the Casino Control Commission, online gaming only accounted for 176 jobs, or 0.08 percent of all casino employees.
Sports betting offers more employment opportunities, such as cashiers or food and beverage servers, Marino said.
“Most jobs in sports wagering are at the corporate or international headquarters of the (casino) partners. None of those jobs have to be based in Atlantic City,” he said. “All of these new revenues that are coming in may lead to false conclusions that they are creating new jobs in Atlantic City. To the extent they are, they are mostly at lower levels.”