Making Kids Count
Sarah (not her real name) is twelve. Her home life is less than ideal, with family members doing drugs and moving in and out of her life. Sarah responds to her difficult family situation by often getting angry at teachers and other students at her Monterey County elementary school. Last spring, Sarah’s teachers referred her to Sticks and Stones, a school-based program for kids living in traumatic environments.
The group, which was begun for kids experiencing domestic violence, and has expanded to include kids dealing with any type of major traumatic event, meets once a week for 10 weeks.
“Most of us are mainly angry,” Sarah says. “I learned how to deal with it. I learned that it’s better to deal with a bully than to be a bully. If you’re feeling sad you can go see your friend to cheer you up or do something that would cheer you up, but nothing bad.”
When asked what “something bad” would be, Sarah says, “You learn not to do something that you think will make you feel better but will get you more angry, like getting a knife or trying to stab yourself.”
To take kids from a place of wanting to hurt themselves to a place of empowerment in ten weeks seems hardly long enough, a fact that those running the program readily acknowledge. But for Sarah and others, every moment in a positive environment counts.
According to one of the program counselors, Tracy Keenan, the change in kids has been at times, dramatic.
“A lot of them have really opened up to each other and have found a trusting environment,” she says. “A lot of them don’t have a safe place and they’ve found it.”
Keenan says that some of the kids in the group she runs have also made impressive academic strides.
“When you start dealing with things emotionally, the academics follow,” she says. “Some of these students have become students of the month.”
Keenan uses tools like art therapy to help the students express painful emotions.
“We do a soul collage,” she says. “We cut out pictures from magazines of empowering things they want for their future. We also do journaling with weekly assignments. One week the assignment called ‘Dear Self,’ where they write a letter to themselves and go over the ideas they have of themselves.”
So far Sticks and Stones is only in eight County schools, including in Marina and Salinas, but the fact that it exists at all is due to the dedication of program director, Julianne Leavy.
Leavy has the rare ability to exude warmth and calm while talking about the darkest of topics. As a marriage and family counselor working in Monterey County for the past 10 years, Leavy has seen families experiencing violence and become intimately familiar with the damage it wreaks on children.
“6500 children each year in Monterey County go through Family and Children Services,” she says. “They most likely have either witnessed violence, or personally experienced it.”
Part of the reason for Leavy’s calm must be that she’s part of the solution: as director of County nonprofit Harmony at Home, she designs and manages programs like Sticks and Stones, as well as others, to help kids and families break the cycle of violence.
Other programs run by Harmony at Home include “What About the Children?”, a series of classes for divorcing and separating families, and a therapeutic teen summer camp for young women who have experienced trauma, run in collaboration with the Big Sur Land Trust. All the programs aim to stop the cycle of dysfunctional behavior.
“Even if parents aren’t willing to change, we could still plant seeds in the kids,” Leavy says.
Right now Leavy is focused on fundraising for Sticks and Stones: the program costs $7500 a year to run per school, and is especially critical for areas like Salinas, which she says no longer have any professional counselors in the school system.
“My goal is by 2010 to have all the schools in the county that need this program, have it,” she says. “The goal to end the cycle of violence starting with this generation.”
According to counselor Cheryl Trotter, the group setting allows children to normalize feelings like being sad or ashamed.
“A lot of the kids feel confused,” she says. “It’s so complicated, because the child loves their parents whether they are abusive or not. They want to defend that parent, but at the same time, their body is telling them it’s not right.”
Trotter has a leather bag in which she has the children place special glass tokens with their initials on it.
“We go around the group, and everyone says what they appreciate about the other children, and we charge the token with some special wish. We wish them safety.”
Harmony at Home is planning a fall 2006 fundraiser. For more information, call 625-5160.
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