By Riley Kaminer
We are living through a pediatric mental health crisis. The pandemic on accelerated a decade-long trend that saw feelings of persistent sadness and hopelessness — as well as suicidal thoughts and behaviors — increased by about 40% among young people, according to the CDC.
Davie-based startup Clayful is addressing this crisis through its platform that offers text-based coaching for kids to support their mental wellness. The startup partners with K-12 schools and school districts to quickly provide students with access to human coaches. Clayful also provides journals with self-paced content to students, teachers, and counselors each week. All the while, Clayful provides data-driven insights to school personnel, including alerts if a student is struggling.
Co-founder and CEO Maria Barrera told Refresh Miami that it was seeing a New York Times article about the rising suicide rates among 8-year-olds that inspired her to quit her job – head of growth and partnerships at people ops platform ChartHop – and launch Clayful alongside co-founder and Chief Experience Officer Melissa Pelochino.
“I had no idea what this was going to look like, but I knew that I needed to be part of the solution,” Barrera said. She started by talking to as many people as possible: teachers, kids, parents.
One of the main issues she noticed early on is that 86% of psychologists are white. “That does not reflect me and it does not affect the majority of the school population out there,” noted Barrera.
“We’re filling a gap in schools where they don’t have enough staff to navigate the mental health challenges that their kids are facing. And for kids, we’re bridging the gap between when they feel a bad emotion – whether that’s fear, sadness, anger – and when they rebound from that,” continued Barrera.
“We meet them where they’re at – either on their phones or computers – and connect them with a coach within 60 seconds that’s there to support them and listen to whatever’s on their mind.”
Barrera moved to the US from Colombia when she was 10 years old and grew up in Weston. Helping people comes naturally to Barrera: “I started coaching when I was basically 15,” she said, explaining that she was always open to helping friends with anything from homework to boy drama to figuring out their post-high school plans.
Barrera then went on to earn mechanical engineering degrees from Stanford and eventually became the senior director of growth at Dania Beach-based Nearpod. Pelochino is also a Nearpod alum, having served as director of professional development at the edtech company.
Clayful’s platform is already available to 10,000 kids across five states (not in Florida yet). Its team has grown to six people and 40 coaches since launching in January 2022. Barrera expects this number of coaches to grow to 150 by the end of the year.
When the company was originally founded, they raised a $2 million pre-seed. They are now raising a seed round.
Clayful was recently selected for the Google for Startups Latino Founders Fund, which provides the company with $150,000 in equity-free cash to help fuel their business. They also receive sales and fundraising training, technical support from Google mentors, up to $100,000 in Google Cloud credits and mental health coaching from a team of Black and Latino therapists.
“I love seeing Clayful in the hands of more and more kids,” Barrera said. “Helping kids become more self-reliant and resilient has been very special. We’re building something that I wish I had when I was a kid.”
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