Be Well, Be Promise – A Celebration of the New UrbanPromise Wellness Center

I am feeling incredibly blessed and supported by the fundraiser for our Wellness Center last Wednesday evening. It was hosted by SuburbanPromise Committee members Elizabeth Mangino and Linda Giudice, and held at the beautiful Haddonfield home of Cheryl and Bruce Paparone. Over 80 people attended; my children were the bartenders and helpers, as were 2 of my former Girl Scouts and one former confirmand! What goes around comes around, eh? Additionally Liam McCormick, a youth from church with whom I spent time on a mission trip, played piano for the evening. All the food and wine were donated by local merchants – Elizabeth and Linda outdid themselves. Jodina said it was the first time an UrbanPromise fundraiser was fully donated. We are so grateful.

We raised $10,000, and I got my first sponsor, which made me very happy. My goal now is to fund group counseling for the incoming freshman class AND their parents – a program I would like to call “Transitions”. My hope is to help parents understand that parenting doesn’t end when their children become teens – indeed it becomes all the more challenging and vital. To do this I need another 24 sponsors.

Here is my speech that I wrote for the evening – I ended up speaking more freely than this, but this was the structure. Those of you who have been reading regularly will recognize the language!

Be Well, Be Promise Fundraising Event

When I started this position in September, one of the first responsibilities I had was to teach health to the high school students. I was fortunate to teach all four grades over 2 quarters, and in this way I got to know all 41 of these young men and women. In the health book I came across a life stress survey, intended to measure the amount of stress a teen had experienced in the past year. It assigned points to different life events ranging from the death of a loved one to holidays and the start of school. Any score over 200 suggested significant stress requiring intervention, like counseling. I was shocked to see the results – a couple of the students had scores of 1250, and scores between 300-600 were the norm. One telling comment by the seniors was that this survey didn’t include what was stressing them, which was exposure to drug culture and teen pregnancy. It was a real eye opener.

How many of you have been to UrbanPromise? When you walk into Camden Forward School you are greeted by smiling children who will look you in the eye, shake your hand, hold the door open for you…it makes you want to send your own children there to learn manners! But scratch just beneath the surface and the realities these children face on a daily basis will take your breath away. For MLK day there was a speech contest. One of the 3rd graders, Jada, read her winning speech to the audience:
“I live in Camden City, one of the worst cities in America. One can say it’s a city without hope. In 2012, Camden City set a record with 67 homicides. That’s the highest murder rate in the country. Sadly, two of those homicides affected my family. On April 12th my cousin, Nicholas, age 19, was murdered and then 6 months later on October 28th my Uncle Luis also become a victim of Camden violent crime. “

I don’t know about you but when my kids were 8 years old they weren’t thinking about their mortality, and their vocabulary did not include the word ‘homicide’. These kids have great wisdom, years ahead in that department. But they are also very injured. Many have single moms who were teens when they gave birth and were themselves abused as children. They might do all right parenting when their children are young but as their children reach adolescence and begin to assert themselves the parenting falls apart. I hear stories of anger giving way to physical and verbal abuse, as well as neglect. It makes you feel angry at the parents until you meet them – then the clinician in me recognizes profound depression. One mom expressed profound shame at the fact that she was only earning $14/hour driving a Sen Han transit bus – it allowed her to be home for her kids, but wasn’t enough to put food on the table for the 4 of them. And then to come home to scattered shoes and backpacks, and to have her teens not want to converse or hug her – was it any wonder that she ‘lost it’ on a regular basis?

On the wellness center literature scattered about this lovely home there’s a lot of talk about toxic stress. Everyone experiences stress, right? And some stress is very necessary for good health. And I dare say every one of us has been through times of high stress, not sleeping as well, eating too much or too little – thankfully we have support and coping methods to get us through. Toxic stress occurs when stress is prolonged and overrides our coping mechanisms. It disrupts all sorts of things in a developing body, like brain size, nervous system dysregulation and hormonal changes which make it difficult to function. Unaddressed this causes many of the chronic illnesses that I used to see in private practice – diabetes, heart disease, liver disease, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.

In school it causes all sorts of problems, like difficulty focusing, loss of memory, inability to sit still, and hypervigilance.

The great news is that the impact of toxic stress can be addressed – there are answers. Good, research based answers. Just getting a child to name what has happened to her and then to be validated is a huge help. Good nutrition is critical to help mood and focus, as well as prevent some of the chronic illnesses I mentioned. Mindfulness practices like yoga teach relaxation and self-control – when practiced regularly they actually increase blood flow to areas in the brain critical to learning and knowledge retention!

People have asked what I need, and I’ll be honest, have been reluctant to make financial contributions, wanting instead to donate a specific item. Truth is, I need sponsors. 25 for this year, to be exact. I need the financial support to have the resources necessary to provide services like counseling and parenting classes. To pay for the garden we built. I feel blessed by this call and I am willing and ready to be there to hear the stories, to share the pain. What I am asking you to do is to partner with me by sponsoring my work at $75/month. It may seem like a lot but actually that’s less than a daily cup of coffee at Saxby’s or Starbucks and it does so much more. Growing up and living in Haddonfield is a luxury I never fully appreciated until I started working at UrbanPromise – I hope some of what I have said tonight helps you to see that, too, and to tug at your heart to help our neighbors in Camden.

And I’ll let you in on a little secret – our accountant did the math and if each of you here donates $150, that’ll cover costs too! But it won’t be the same a sponsoring wellness care for a child – with that comes the soul satisfaction of knowing you are touching a specific young life.

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