Valley woman making a difference

SAN ANTONIO – Stephanie Contreras has devoted her life to teaching and taking care of children – especially those struggling with mental illness.

That’s why Clarity Child Guidance Center, a not-for-profit providing mental health care to children 17 and under, has named the teacher and children’s mental health advocate as the recipient of an annual award.

The honor recognizes individuals like Contreras, who are dedicated to making a difference for children and families suffering from mental illness.

Contreras, a music teacher at McAuliffe Elementary School in McAllen ISD, will receive the second annual Kathy Cunningham Mental Health Advocacy Award today at the Claritycon2016 summit on children’s mental health in San Antonio.

Contreras was selected because of her longtime advocacy and dedicated service on behalf of children struggling with mental illness.

She was nominated by Judy Quisenberry, grants director of the Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation.

“Stephanie has devoted her life to teaching and taking care of children, especially if they have a mental illness,” said Clarity CGC President and CEO Fred Hines. “This award honors those who have worked to meet the challenges of expanding access to care and de-stigmatization of mental illness, and Stephanie has accomplished much to improve the care of children with mental illness in South Texas.”

The award was established in honor of Kathy Cunningham, a Clarity Child Guidance Center mental health professional who devoted more than 30 years of her life to the cause of children’s mental health as a parent, professional and community member.

Contreras’ role as an advocate for children’s mental health began when her oldest son started showing symptoms of mental illness at the age of 16.

She began serving as vice president of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) South Texas in 1995, then became president of NAMI South Texas and took on leadership roles in the NAMI Texas board of directors and on various committees. From 2003-2007 she served as NAMI Region 9 director, 2nd vice president and secretary.

She has spoken to numerous local and state groups in hopes of educating everyone about mental illness and to decrease stigma.

She is passionate about children receiving treatment for mental disorders and is known for answering the phone at all hours and even personally visiting the homes of families facing mental illness in a child to help them understand the options available to them.

She also teaches on topics related to partnerships and suicide prevention, and provides crisis intervention training for peace officers.

She has advocated for children with various school districts in the Rio Grande Valley including parent and educator meetings and state hearings.

Contreras teaches and is a state trainer in English and Spanish for Family to Family, NAMI’s free, 12-session educational program for family, significant others and friends of people living with mental illness, and Visions for Tomorrow, NAMI’s series of workshops for parents and direct primary caregivers of children and adolescents with mental illnesses.

Contreras co-founded the Mental Health Coalition of the Rio Grande Valley.

She is currently director of Mental Health America, Rio Grande Valley Branch; president of NAMI Rio Grande Valley; immediate past president of the board of directors for the Mental Health Coalition of the Rio Grande Valley; director of the Valley Suicide Prevention Council; and serves on the Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness (PAIMI) Council with Disability Rights Texas.

She has developed conferences, a mental health course for educators and community activities to educate people with mental illness, their families, and the professionals who treat them.

“Stephanie is a tireless and passionate force for positive change in how individuals, families and the broader community deal with children’s mental health,” Hines said. “We are privileged to honor her achievements and efforts with this award.”