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Noble Foundation launches tele-counseling program for rural students


Noble Health Foundation, led by former House Speaker Elijah Haahr, announced its newest rural health care project this week. Teaming up with former Kansas City-based start-up, StartTalking, the foundation is launching a tele-counseling program at the Van-Far school district in Audrain County.

The program will provide each of the 300 students in the 7th-12th grade classes up to five private online sessions with a licensed Missouri counselor via a Zoom connection at the small, rural school located approximately one hour northeast of Columbia.

“From day 1, the foundation’s primary focus has been meeting the needs of our rural neighbors where they are,” said Haahr.

After he was named the executive director of the foundation in spring 2021, Haahr traveled around mid-Missouri for several weeks conducting a series of listening sessions and hearings. Among his first meetings was a trip to Vandalia where he met Superintendent John Fortney. A native of New York, Fortney took over at Van-Far in 2020 and laid out the mental health needs of his students to Haahr and Noble Health Co-Founder Tom Carter.

“Meeting with the Noble Health Foundation, we were asked what we needed, and mental health support was our first choice. We are so thankful for them for listening and working with us to create this partnership,” said Fortney.

After their initial meeting, Noble Foundation began talks with Mark Nolte who launched StartTalking in 2015 in Kansas City. Now based out of Colorado, and with a nationwide network, StartTalking provides licensed counselors to those who cannot attend traditional in-person counseling. Eventually, Noble, StartTalking, and Van-Far entered into a Memorandum of Understanding to launch this pilot program at this school.

“If this program is successful, we would love to expand to other areas,” Haahr said. “This program is part of our vision to re-localize rural healthcare in the heartland.”

A recent report from the surgeon general states that from 2007-2018, suicide rates among youth ages 10-24 in the U.S. increased by 57 percent. A report from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) found more than 60 percent of rural Americans lived in “mental health professional shortage areas,” a problem that experts say has worsened under COVID-19 shutdowns. And in a Thomas P. Miller and Associates survey, 60 percent of respondents said the biggest barrier to quality health care in rural areas has been a lack of financial resources.

Headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, Noble Health Corporation was established in 2019. The corporation took over management of its first hospital, Callaway Community Hospital & Clinic (formerly Fulton Medical Center & Clinic), in late 2019 and officially purchased the hospital in late 2020. In March 2021, Noble Health purchased and currently manages Audrain Community Hospital and several clinics in surrounding communities.

Featured image: Noble Health Executive Director Elijah Haahr, Van-Far counselor Sam Utterback, Van-Far Superintendent John Fortney