The I AM ABLE Center is a pioneer in its field. There are other mental health resources dispersed throughout the city, but the center is different for two reasons- first, they focus primarily on counseling at the family level, and second, they use a trauma-informed care model. According to the CEO of the organization, Dr. Carolyn Vessel, trauma-informed family counseling is the best approach to addressing a multitude of problems. If a child is acting out at school and counseling is suggested, it would make sense to have his or her parents and/or guardians present to help discuss the origins of the child's behavior and the solutions that can be sought at the family level. Similarly, if a parent is struggling with trauma, addiction, or mental illness, his or her children should come to the counseling appointment, because the kids could express their own feelings and perspective on their parent's situation. Trauma-informed counseling in general is receiving more attention because it's something at the local level that helps people address the psychological effects of systematic racism, poverty, crime, police brutality, and other socioeconomically derived factors that serve to traumatize a community. If a person or a family can be served before a "meltdown" or before "someone does something stupid", it can help prevent individuals from behaviors that lead to incarceration. If you prevent someone from hitting rock bottom in terms of mental health, you can then prevent a lot of the worst-case scenarios: jail, poverty or homelessness, or broken relationships with family and friends.
Preventive methods, especially in children living in low-SES neighborhoods, are also receiving more attention from lawmakers. The I AM ABLE Center already receives funding from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), but thanks to a new bill (literally announced yesterday), there will be "more than two dozen federal grants to fund programs that help identify and treat psychological stress and trauma in kids who live in violent neighborhoods".
In the center, we spilt up into different groups and worked in different areas of the building. One group painted the "Family Room" to create a brighter and more open atmosphere. The people at the I AM ABLE Center believe that if there is something going on with the child, they should speak to both child and parent and this is the space that allows for that to happen. We are excited to go back and finish this painting job.
Another group went up to the storage area, where there are boxes and filing cabinets full of old papers- some from the 1990's. Since these papers were so old, they needed to be sorted and shredded to open up space to organize more current paperwork. By the end of the day, there were about 5 to 6 bags full of shredded paper.
A third group remained in the administrative offices, sorting through papers and correspondence for each of the many subcommittees created within the center. There's a committee dedicated to the creation and implementation of a curriculum that teaches elementary school children how to process their feelings in a healthy and respectful way. There's another committee responsible for planning a multidisciplinary and widely-attended conference on trauma, held annually in July. There are also committees for marketing, communication, and data collection (for the purposes of grant-writing) from the community. A member of this group, Katie, worked with Curtis, an intern, to reorganize a storage room with a bunch of office equipment and miscellaneous supplies.
We were happy to help the I AM ABLE Center do these tasks, so the staff didn't have to take the time to do them. Now, they are able to spend more of their time serving people and families within their community. Though North Lawndale is a rough neighborhood, everyone on staff at the I AM ABLE Center made sure to emphasize that people living in bad neighborhoods aren't inherently bad. That's an incredibly reductive way to phrase it, but someone involved in a gang can also be responsible for taking care of their terminally ill grandparent (an actual example given to us by a staff member). People have more than one side to them- they are not defined solely by their demographics, or their neighborhood, or their struggles. It's an important aspect of empathy to remember for all of us as we go forward in this week, as well as in life.
When we returned to the Maria Kaupas Center, Blair, Ugochi, and Fiona cooked a wonderful meal of stir-fried tofu and vegetables. It was a hearty and healthy end to a long and satisfying day. Between dinner and reflection, we had an impromptu dance lesson, which will probably result in some funny Instagram posts later this week. Tomorrow, we will attend a community meeting held by the I AM ABLE Center and other community partners, as well as finish up our painting and administrative tasks at the center.
xoxo, Kathleen and Anna