People do well if they can. A fairly simple statement, to be sure, and one that’s recognized as a guiding principal across UMFS. And to help people do well, you must understand where they’re coming from.
“You have to meet these kids where they are,” said Dana Ray, Senior Manager of Residential Life at the UMFS Child & Family Healing Center. “If a resident gets angry and throws a gallon of milk in the cottage, I’m not going to get mad. I want to know why they threw the milk.”
Fight-or-flight is often the mentality of children who’ve had difficult pasts. But by being “curious and not furious,” Dana said staff can turn outbursts into teachable moments. “Sometimes anger’s all they know, because at home it’s being promoted,” he said. “I tell them, ‘Hey, if you’re angry, right now might not be the best time to make a decision.’”
Cottage Manager Tavis Foushee added that building relationships with young people at CFHC often means teaching them a new normal. “The only reaction some of them know is acting out,” he said.
New challenges and often heartbreaking circumstances await CFHC staff each day, yet their unwavering commitment to youth remains.
“When I look back on troubled days,” Tavis said, “those are the days I feel best about, because I know I intervened and made a difference.”
“People say all the time, ‘You must be courageous to deal with those kids,’” Dana added. “But what I say is the kids are the ones who come here — after all their trauma and abuse — they come here and trust us. These kids are the superheroes.”
“I knew I Couldn’t Stay Home”
Drew* was 13 years old when he arrived at CFHC. The first several days, he wanted nothing to do with peers or staff and expressed his anger, frustration, and pain through a common protest.
“When kids come here and they’re mad, they wear hoods all the time,” Dana said. “But I can’t wait for them to take the hood off. That’s when you know you’re making a difference.”
The rage Drew was coping with had nothing to do with the loving family that adopted him when he was 9 and everything to do with the trauma he experienced at a much younger age. “Even if trauma occurred early in a child’s life, they might not exhibit behaviors until later,”explained Sheena Lyle, CFHC Program Director.
No parent or guardian wishes to send their child to a residential program, and UMFS offers services to prevent out-of-home placements. But sometimes residential treatment is necessary, as Drew’s adoptive father noted. “The days had gotten dark,” he said. “But I’ve seen tremendous things since Drew’s been here.”
For 300 days, Drew lived away from his baby brother and adoptive parents. For 300 days, Drew followed his treatment. For 300 days, Drew learned how to conquer his pain. “I was fighting all the time before I got here,” he said. “I didn’t even want to come here, but I knew I couldn’t stay home.”
On Commencement day, Drew spoke about completing treatment. “I’m glad I came here and just want to say thank you for helping me,” he said to his family, peers, and staff.
The teenager looked much the same as when he had arrived at CFHC 10 months earlier: shaggy brown hair covered his eyes and skinny jeans sat around his waist. There was, however, one noticeable and significant difference in the faded blue sweatshirt that hugged his shoulders.
The hood was finally off.
*Name changed to protect privacy
This is the final installment of a three-part series that takes an up-close look at the UMFS Child & Family Healing Center in Richmond. If you’d like to learn more about CFHC, please click here.