A Summer’s Day of Wellness

First thing this morning I was listening to Pamela Foxx, our only HR staff who also manages 200 volunteers AND corporate work groups, share her vision of UrbanPromise with 22 eager volunteers from Wegman’s intern program. I was taken with how she described our campus brimming with summer camp activity. And I was moved by the video she showed of our after school programs. And I was honored to describe the work I do…it was a good way to start the day.

10 of the volunteers headed over to the garden with me to pull weeds – lots and lots of weeds. We have nearly lost the battle this summer to these native species – but I am not giving in! As they settled into work, along came a large group of kids from Camp Faith – the intern in charge of them wanted to lead Bible study in the garden that morning. It was a sweet sight as the kids tried to name all they saw growing.

Meanwhile, Wegman volunteer Xavier was putting together the wheelbarrow that Ocean Heights Presbyterian church donated toward our cause. I was so excited to have it assembled finally – it’s been sitting for a few weeks due to vacation and lack of wheelbarrow-building-expertise! I was out by the sunflowers loosening massive clumps of weeds along the fence…when it started the rain. Dumping, drenching rain…which drove us all indoors and gave us all a chance for some meaningful conversation. The best question was from Xavier: “Why are people willing to come here and work for a lot less money?” We spoke of call, and work that has a purpose, that is deeply satisfying. It was a meaningful conversation.

The afternoon brought sun and humidity. The Wegman interns bravely returned to work in the heat, and gave the garden their “all” for another hour or so. Heartfelt thanks to them!

Much to my surprise, a former student appeared on the back porch of the Peace House. I’ve mentored this young woman for 3 years now, but the past year has been rough – she’s made choices I wouldn’t have recommended as she desperately seeks independence from her dysfunctional family at the tender age of 18. She’s thinner than I’d like to see, and liked the idea of “shopping” in our clothes donation closet. Part of me was sad to see her where she is, and yet I am struck by her resilience. She manages to get 2 meals a day and finds safe enough places to sleep. She is determined to continue her education. I let her wash up in our bathroom, packed a bag full of clothes, and left her – with what cash I had to offer – at the McDonalds in the center of Camden. I have hopes that she takes the talk we had this afternoon to heart – she did tell me that “I have never steered her wrong”. I reminded myself that I am called to love and walk alongside these remarkable people, but not to fix their problems.

As I finished loading piles of weeds in my bright yellow wheelbarrow, I was thinking of how far this job is from seeing patients every 15 minutes and writing prescriptions. Of how tomorrow morning I’d be teaching again at Penn, how I doubted the students and faculty envisioned me correctly at work, covered in mud and wielding a pitchfork. And how fulfilling my “job” is…when I heard mumbling. “Hello…mumble mumble…Hello…” – it was Horace! Horace is a local guy from the neighborhood, talks a lot to himself, has become an awesome volunteer at the food co-op. “Hi Horace!” I smiled, “want to take home some vegetables?” He answered in the affirmative so in we went to the kitchen to load him up with beans and lettuce. His wonderful sister, with whom he lives, would likely appreciate it. Horace makes my heart sing, and helped me end my day with a smile. Thanks be to God!



Floating…The Power of Sharing Your ACEs

I met the most amazing woman this morning at the food co-op. She was sitting by herself, enjoying her breakfast, so I sat with her and asked her if she had any plans for the summer. “I don’t really know…I’m floating right now.” That sounds like something I’d say, I thought to myself. “What do you mean by floating?” Well, Kathleen answered looking me straight in the eye, “I recently reconnected with my mother. I hadn’t seen her in 7 years.”
“Wow, that’s great! That must feel so wonderful.” I said, feeling in my heart the mother love I feel from my mom, as well as what I feel for my children.
“Yes…and there’s more. Last week I had a burden lifted that had been weighing on me for 30 years. God has been very active in my life lately.” I asked what had changed that this was happening to her now, and she said that she had rejected God for over 20 years because she was so filled with anger. But lately she had started going to church again, and felt the Holy Spirit guiding her. On Father’s Day her pastor spoke of how some fathers are gone out of your life (Kathleen’s passed away 20 years ago) – and Kathleen began to sob. And when she next met with her mother – last weekend – she felt the Spirit nudge her to finally speak her truth – that as a child she had been abused by her dad. That’s when the burden lifted – when she finally let her mother in to understand the “why” behind her anger, her rejection, her near suicide attempt with pills, and all the lies. Of course her mother was stunned because she had been there the whole time he abused Kathleen, yet was unaware. And Kathleen had never had the wherewithal to speak of it before now.

She’s been glowing from the inside since she spoke. People keep commenting on it. And she feels compelled to share her story, which is why she has graciously given me permission to share it.

From my perspective, aside from feeling blessed to meet this strong woman, all I can think of is – and there you have it! The power of sharing your ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences, www.acestudy.org). There is healing power in sharing your pain – both for yourself and for others. It can set you free, or it can set you on a path toward a more peaceful existence.

“I’m not angry anymore. I am thankful. Not that life doesn’t continue to be a roller coaster,” observed Kathleen. “You know I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis a few years ago. I’ve barely been able to get out of my chair. Yet today I walked all the way here – 35 minutes. The Holy Spirit has guided me to Wiggins Park, where I have been putting myself through a kind of boot camp. I feel so much stronger. I am happy.”

You go, girl!

Bon appétit!

“There she is! I see my grandma!” Said Miyah out on the back porch of the Peace House. Inside I heard volunteer Maureen Dodson echo her with a smile on her face. “Want to hear one of my favorite quotes?” I asked Maureen, “There is but one child in all the world and that is all children. ”

It was the last cooking class for our fifth-graders. This program offered by the Vetri Foundation is the brainchild of Philadelphia Inquirer food editor Maureen Fitzgerald, who writes the column My Daughter’s Kitchen (www.philly.com/philly/blogs/my daughter/) every Thursday. For the past eight weeks five of our fifth-graders have learned how to cook a meal each week that will serve six for $20 or less. The recipes are simple and nutritious and it has been a joy to witness the kids growing both in their culinary skills and in their willingness to try new foods.

We were particularly blessed to have chef Amy Falkenstein lead our class. She works for the Vetri Foundation offering food demonstrations in schools throughout the region. I’m amazed that each week she pulled off the miracle of five fifth-graders staying busy for a full two hours wielding knives and hot pans – without any injuries! She is pictured here with four of our students after they cooked a meal for their family members. I can’t wait to see what we’ll cook up this fall when this program will again be offered. Many thanks to Amy and to Maureen and Heather Winkler, our faithful volunteers.

Welcome To Our Healing Community

Meet Trish Trivinia! She started at UrbanPromise one month ago in our newly minted position, mental health clinician…and there is no doubt I now have a partner in crime. She has many years of experience in therapeutic counseling in a variety of settings, and her passion is sharing her love of mindfulness meditation. Faithful readers of my blog will know that embedding mindful practice at UrbanPromise – as a tool to empower youth to cope with their adversities – is a major initiative of mine. Within one short month, Trish has practiced mindfulness (most commonly a body scan) with youth and staff in most of our departments…including with three wiggly 8th grade boys! And in leadership today I listened as Jodina (our ED) shared a story that demonstrates the way this modality complements the positive teaching approach our staff is using:

Jodina was in the UP Sanctuary when Mr. Robert, our art teacher, marched in with an angry 8th grade class. He announced that there would be no art class for them today as they were being disrespectful. They sat down and Jodina gave them a short talk. Then Mr. Robert asked what helpful things students had done in the face of this challenge. 8 or so students shared the way they tried to be helpful – then one of the boys who has been practicing meditation with Trish asked if they could be silent for awhile. And so they were – for 10 minutes! My scientific mind was all over this – these kids, with their traumatized autonomic nervous systems usually in full rev…sitting in silence for 10 minutes. Jodina even mouthed to Robert at one point, “how much longer?” When they opened their eyes, an amazing thing happened – one young woman raised her hand and said, “I would like to apologize to the class for what I said – it was disrespectful.” And then a young man raised his hand as he, too, owned his responsibility in this situation. The group was affirmed and off they went to their next class.

One of the 8th grade boys has said that he likes mindfulness so much because it is a chance to be quiet and think about what you are feeling. Music to my ears! In this noisy city with constant stimulation, silence is a rarity – and a gift of peace. It gives space to contemplate what is going on in the moment, in your life. Back at the leadership meeting, after hearing this story Bruce Main asked us – what if world leaders worked at developing a personal sense of peace? Imagine what might come of that.

Welcome Trish indeed!

On Being Significant

I was listening to John Lewis being interviewed (On Being, Krista Tippett, NPR) about his civil rights work on this MLK weekend – impressed by this 74 year old who is still able to speak of hope…even when discussing congress! I can only imagine what he envisioned as success when he was a 25 year old working with Martin Luther King, marching in Selma. And how much faith and hope he has had to muster for the past 50 years. There have been many successes since 1965 but the work is far from complete, and I am curious if it progressed the way Lewis thought it would.

These past couple of weeks have challenged my vision of success at UrbanPromise. A couple of the young women that I have been mentoring since the spring of 2012 have made choices that have damaged their health and put their lives at risk. Not what I thought would be the outcome of hearing a mother/nurse practitioner/loving voice speak into their lives for 3 years now! Perhaps the honeymoon is wearing off. Perhaps this is a continuation of my ‘on-boarding’, as one colleague said in response to my mourning. Perhaps, perhaps…

It’s funny. I’ve consistently – and rather glibly, I now realize – said that “I can’t fix them, I can only walk alongside them and empower them with knowledge.” But there is clearly a part of me that believes by speaking and modeling what I consider a successful lifestyle, I expect these young women to let go of their trauma-filled childhoods and make good choices. The rational part of my mind laughs at that sentence – all research points away from such a straightforward solution. But my heart yearns for them to see themselves the way I see them – as beautiful, whole and beloved children of God with just. so. much. potential. To simply wash their hands of their damaging pasts and walk forward, confident in their potential.

J. Herbert Nelson, a Credo colleague and friend of mine, speaks of how “We are not called to be successful. We are called to be significant.” I have been chewing on this one hard for the past few weeks. I do believe I am being significant in these young women’s lives. But I don’t know – I can’t know – I can’t expect that significance will lead to successful living. At least not in the way I imagine it all playing out.

And maybe that’s a good thing. Because thankfully, I am just an instrument of God’s plan for them, and experience has taught me that God thinks way bigger than I do. Already both of these young women have shown a level of resilience that I didn’t see coming: a re-alignment with values and priorities, sprinkled with statements of self-appreciation. Will it hold this time? That’s not for me to decide. But I will be there to walk alongside and to witness.


A Lesson in Forgiveness

Enjoy this post, written by Ashley Williams, a student whom I mentor and fondly ‘mother’. Shared with her permission.

A heart of a mother is a deep abyss at the bottom of which you will always find forgiveness” – Honore de Balzac
Growing up, I never knew how people would look at me after I answered their questions about this lady whom I have never seen. I didn’t know whether to lie about her or tell them the truth. If I told them the truth would they feel sorry for me? I wanted to hate this lady because I had no idea who she was and I never liked hearing about this stranger. It’s not easy talking about a woman whom you’ve never seen before. There were times where I referred to her as the lady who birthed me, meaning my dad just picked her to have his baby. Although, I knew it was not true, I convinced myself that it was. Everyone made it seem like her absence was hurting me, and maybe it was.
When I was younger I asked my dad who she was. The look on his face told me that I had no business asking. I figured that maybe he wasn’t prepared for this question. That day he just looked at me but eventually he explained to me the situation. At the time, I didn’t quite understand, but recently it came to me. I wondered how I was going to explain my situation to people when they asked. Would they accept me for me, and the issues that come along with me? There is a whole group of people who would look down on me just because I finally figured out who this lady was.
November 16, 2013 I spent the day thinking about this stranger, who should have meant so much to me. I asked myself why I hated her. The only reason I came up with was that I didn’t know who she was. As I tried to understand why she wasn’t here with me, I thought to myself, “Hate is a strong word, I don’t hate her. I’m just misunderstanding the reasons for her absence.” Deep down I continued to pray that this lady would show herself. Looking back, I’m kind of glad she’s not here because it’s helping me understand the absence of certain people who were never in my life.
I am a 16 old year girl with just one parent and that’s my dad. In Camden, statistics show that more dads walk out of their children’s life than moms do, I became the “chosen one” whose mom decided to leave. It’s rare that you hear about a mom leaving her kids, and when you do there are many questions you ask as you try to understand why she left. My mom’s absence made me realize that you may never really know a person’s situation, so you shouldn’t judge others. But, then again, a mother leaving her kids, just doesn’t sound quite right to me. Though, it made me realize that it doesn’t matter what the situation is, you should never leave your kids. However, I believe you should try to understand the situation of mothers who have left their kids. As a young lady without a mother, I choose to forgive this lady because she made me a better person. My life gave me the passion to want to work with kids when I get older. Especially, kids who are missing a parent, or maybe don’t have any parents. This will give me a chance to show kids that just because they don’t have the ideal home life, that there are people who are still going to love them. This situation made me realize how real and strong my passion is for kids.

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Are We Mis-Medicating Traumatized Children?

A Penn student of mine, Giulliana Gonzalez, wrote this compelling editorial – food for thought for parents, youth workers and prescribers alike. I am honored that she is allowing me to share this:

Are We Mis-Medicating Traumatized Children?

According to the American Psychiatry Association (APA), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is the most common neurobehavioral disorder in children in the United States. Over the last few years, the rate of ADHD diagnosis has increased dramatically, and the CDC reports that five percent of children currently have ADHD. Changes in diagnostic criteria and increased advertising encouraging the use of medications to treat “problematic” behavior and “reveal his true potential” have both contributed to this increase. Additionally, sensational media’s emphasis on the over-prescription of these “dangerous” drugs has lead to public concern. The true issue, however, is whether these drugs are being misused in children who might not have ADHD.

A lack of awareness of how symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can resemble ADHD can lead to misdiagnosis and unaddressed trauma. There is little research discussing the misdiagnosis of ADHD in children presenting with PTSD. Children with PTSD may experience hyper-vigilance, irritability and difficulty concentrating which may resemble ADHD symptoms. Despite these similarities, the APA does not include PTSD as a differential diagnosis of ADHD.

While an ADHD evaluation focuses on behavior, a PTSD evaluation focuses on identifying trauma. Thus, a lack of adequate history may lead to misdiagnosis. Furthermore, symptoms of PTSD can present a year after the trauma occurred, thereby making the assessment process more challenging. Sexually abused children most commonly develop PTSD, but children who experience other types of trauma such as family dysfunction, car accidents, or gun-related violence can also develop PTSD.

Studies show the tendency of abused children to develop ADHD-related symptoms. Despite these findings, there is little discussion about the importance of including PTSD as a differential diagnosis of ADHD. Although in some cases both ADHD and PTSD may be present, failure to diagnose or misdiagnosing PTSD can have devastating effects. If medications aimed at improving symptoms of ADHD mask the PTSD related behavioral concerns the underlying trauma might not be identified. Unaddressed trauma may lead to more pervasive problems. In contrast to treatment for ADHD that focuses on behavior and academic functioning, treatment for PTSD focuses on the emotional distress the child has experienced. Thus, treatment for ADHD centered on the child’s “problematic behavior,” can aggravate feelings of guilt or shame in victims of PTSD.

Inclusion of PTSD as a differential diagnosis of ADHD may cause speculation that opening this can of worms can further traumatize children. However, studies demonstrate that this is not true— asking victims about trauma does not cause further harm. Instead, addressing their emotional distress is the first step on the road to recovery. Additionally, childhood traumatic experiences are greatly associated with poorer health outcomes, increased risky behavior, and chronic diseases in adulthood. Thus, it is important to encourage open communication about trauma and implement appropriate interventions to prevent lifelong consequences.

Although the media’s coverage on ADHD medication overuse raises concerns, the lack of attention to the potential mis-diagnosis and subsequent mis-medication of children with PTSD bears consequences too serious to disregard. As Steven Sharfstein, President of the APA said, “Trauma is to mental health as smoking is to cancer.” Perhaps the media should shift their focus on shunning medication use for ADHD, to advocating for improved ADHD and PTSD diagnostic criteria in children.

The Eyes Are the Window to Your Soul (sayeth Shakespeare)

I heard Margot Starbuck, author and speaker, say something last week at the UrbanPromise International summit that really resonated: “What we are saying to kids is, ‘I know who you really are.’ I see you I hear you I care for you. No matter what the outside looks like.” No matter what foolish choice you made, I thought. No matter what barriers you erect to protect yourself. I wrote down this quote in my notes and followed it with…”and you know they have heard you and felt your love when they allow you to look deeply into their eyes.”

It made me think of my most recent experience of teaching developmental skills to the sophomores at UrbanPromise Academy. Of how the first week I was the stranger and the walls were up; trying to get a meaningful answer was like pulling teeth. But gradually as the weeks have passed there has been a growing acceptance and even appreciation of the class and of me. They are letting me in as they learn that I am trustworthy, and honoring me by sharing their stories.

And further back thoughts of April, a young woman whose mother abandoned her at birth. When I met her almost 3 years ago now she told me straight up that she would never love or trust a woman in her life. It took two years of persistence – of staying calm through troubling news, of showing up consistently, and of spoiling her a few times on outings! Now she calls me ‘Mom’ and wants me to walk her through the college application process. Her 3.2 average in school shows her self-respect, as does the way she carries herself.

The little ones let you in quickly. I was the mystery reader in Kindergarten on Thursday and most of the class let me look deep into their eyes. Then there are the 5th graders in cooking class – an even-keeled bunch with only minor guarding. By middle school and especially high school though, meaningful looks that reveal vulnerability are hard-won – and deeply satisfying when they arrive.

My last note from Margot’s talk is, “And there’s not one thing I want to change about you.” Because God created you to be exactly who you are. How powerful would it be if every child – every person – knew that deep down? That’s some serious healing. Perhaps that’s the essence of being well.

To Be Angry for Love…

I had a crash course in homelessness and shelter-seeking recently. A family with whom I have been involved for about 3 years now became homeless September 1 because of the complicated world of section 8 housing. This led to a frantic scurry of putting most belongings into storage then crashing at a friend’s home. But you know the adage about guests and fish…they both go bad in 3 days…having 4 stressed guests in a small apartment already holding 4 others didn’t end up well. By the end of September, having lived at another friend’s home for a few days, our family was out on the street, and out of options.

I figured this out when I got a text at 3:45am: “Ms Becky, do you think I could take a shower at the Peace House? It’s been a few days since I had one and I smell. I am embarrassed to go to school.” A younger sibling had received “a bird bath” in the bathroom at Wawa, but that wouldn’t do for the older kids. Quickly at UrbanPromise we formed a small care team, and our students took showers and we fed them breakfast, then I started calling shelters. “I’m sorry, we’re full.” “They don’t fit our criteria.” “They would need background checks and that takes 3 days.” “We are full.” “We are full.” “Sorry, we are full.”!! We tried to pull strings, calling the head of Volunteers of America. Could they find space? We were told to send Mom to downtown Camden, where we were promised she would be given a motel room if all the shelters were full.

One minor detail that was forgotten – she works – so she didn’t qualify for help!! Even though she only has 2 part-time jobs right now, had just enough money for food and the down payment she would need for a new home. That’s when I got angry for love (a favorite John Philip Newell quote of mine) – something I can feel again burning in my chest as I type this. Why don’t I read about all the shelters being full in the news? Why does someone get penalized because they work? How many families are out there like this that don’t have a place like UrbanPromise helping them? This was crazy.

We let them stay for a few days in the Peace House. That’s not what it’s meant for, and we were lucky that we are currently low on professional interns and happened to have the room. I finally found a church that provides shelter from 7p-7a in a near by town – although one county over, so there was concern about crossing the county line. And the new section 8 house was supposed to be available on October 17…but a call last week pushed it back to this weekend.

There is so much going on beneath the radar of those of us who live in stable conditions. My stress level was off the wall, and I have a roof over my head, full belly…and I don’t smell because I have ready access to my daily shower. Imagine functioning well in society without all that. What a challenge.

Resilience Trumps ACEs

This past week has been marked by some seriously sad stories coming from our teen employees, the StreetLeaders. I’ve been giving them brief physicals for work; of course all their blood pressures are ok, their hearts are regular and their lungs are clear. But that doesn’t tell you much about their health. At least not long term health. I made sure to ask them about their sleep and stress levels too – along with coping mechanisms – and out poured stories of parents with terminal illnesses, of sisters being abused and of not enough food at the house. Those were the stories that some were willing to share. I could see that others were holding back.

This is consistent with the blog I wrote last week, citing the results of the ACEs plus (Adverse Childhood Experiences) survey I gave to 92 teens, thanks to grant support from The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey (@HorizonBCBSNJ), which showed that 60% of our youth 14 and up have already lost a loved one to accident or illness. That 49% have a family member who has been incarcerated…leading to even more profound poverty at home. The numbers are numbing – some of our youth are numb, too – a common response to trauma.

So what does one do about this? Certainly if a youth is in imminent danger we call the child protection services. But so many of our youth live in a gray zone – those services may already be initiated, but the child isn’t removed from the home, and hunger from food insecurity doesn’t warrant an emergency response from our government agencies. Looking at the research available on how to help youth with high ACEs, there is no one answer. There is a knowledge gap here – ask the questions, then what? But that doesn’t mean that their aren’t answers. And one of the strongest is to promote RESILIENCE in our youth.

Resilience: the ability to get through adversity intact. I want more than intact. I want healthy and whole and empowered. I want successful and wise and self-assured. Much of the funding from our Horizon grant has gone toward developing curriculum specifically designed to help our UrbanPromise staff promote resilience. Working with a curriculum design expert out of Chicago, we developed an evidence-based approach to resilience made up of 3 parts: what resilience at UrbanPromise looks like, emotional intelligence and the ability to have tough conversations.

My vision is to see all of UrbanPromise – our schools, our after school programs, our teen employment programs, UrbanTrekkers and Boatworks – everyone – on the same page with regard to our approach to traumatized youth. So that we are even more of a healing environment, a place where it is safe to tell your story and where you can trust you will get the help you need. It’s building on the relational foundation already so present at this special ministry in Camden.

Training has started in multiple departments and so far so good – we are hearing things like, “This is going to be a game changer.” And, “I never really understood resilience before but now I get why it’s so important.” We expect to be completed by the end of November…and our youth will be reaping the benefits, I believe, with every important discussion stemming from this training.resilience at up.jpeg

The UrbanPromise Resilience Model