FCHC News


Therapy summer camp for struggling San Jose schoolchildren

Peace Builders program in East San Jose helps students with learning disabilities
San Jose Mercury News




SAN JOSE--Alex Cassell is a husky and fidgety boy, and he's a real handful at home and school. After the 8-year-old swiped and devoured another child's lunch last semester, his punishment was to lunch alone in the principal's office for the rest of the year.

"Somebody snitched on me!" Alex complained last week.

Although he sounded defiant, the boy was trying to explain how he ended up in a "therapy summer camp." Since the summer began, dozens of anxious parents and guardians in the Mount Pleasant Elementary School District have entrusted their kids to therapists who use art, storytelling and games instead of punishment to set the children right.

"To be honest, I worry about him all the time," said Alex's grandfather, Ricardo Hernandez. "He lacks discipline. He says he has a lot of friends, but I don't think he has any. I think this program is something that he needs."

On six campuses at the foot of the east hills in southeast San Jose, some 350 children have learned how to identify the causes of their anger, respect other people and avoid conflicts at school and home.

"We do it with fun and games, and we sneak in the therapeutic aspects without the children knowing it," counselor Stephanie Schmidt said.

She and about 50 other therapists with master's degrees or higher actually work for Foothill Community Health Center, which is a remarkable story itself. Foothill grew from a lone free clinic in 1996 into a juggernaut for the medically needy today. With clinics in seven schools and five neighborhoods, the center's 250 doctors, dentists, therapists, nurses and other medical providers treated about 24,300 children and adults in 2014.

A few years ago, two Foothill therapists decided to blend their summer art-therapy camp with Peace Builders, a national violence-prevention strategy based on games and role-playing developed by the Chicago-based Peace Center International.

"We wanted to take the expressive-art camp to the next level," Foothill therapist Dawn Jacobsen said. "We wanted to give these kids coping skills."

She and another therapist, Katie Hudson, came up with a hybrid approach the kids have nicknamed "Peace Camp." It operated at three schools this summer, including the Ida Jew Academies campus nestled under the parched, brown hills of southeast San Jose.

The children did not look stressed out or troublesome, just happy and normal.

"That's because our program is not structured like school," Hudson said.

For starters, there are two Foothill therapists for each group of nine or 10 children, ensuring lots of personal attention. There are no boring lectures, stressful tests or no-nonsense principals. If a kid acts up or refuses to participate, a therapist simply takes the child outside to figure out what's bothering them deep inside.

"The hope is to get them to identify why they feel frustrated and overwhelmed by their emotions, and then give them coping skills," therapist Elisse Cabrales said.

In one exercise called Angry Dragon, children were given a sheet titled "Managing Your Anger: What's Behind It?" In the center was a snarling face surrounded by other faces reflecting various emotions: shame, sadness, fear, frustration, guilt, disappointment, worry, embarrassment, jealousy, hurt and anxiety. The kids were asked to choose which emotions drove their anger, cut out that face with scissors, and color and glue it to another sheet of paper, this one with a dragon. All the while, the therapists gently encourage the kids to relax and open up.

In the classroom for sixth-graders, a shy girl clipped out the faces for frustration and sadness and said, "I'm frustrated mostly by things going on in my family." A boy said he was disappointed, embarrassed and anxiety driven, but didn't want to explain why. Another boy selected jealousy and frustration and said with a shrug, "Everybody has an angry dragon!" In a role-playing exercise, children wrote puppet plays whose characters do something bad, or need to get out of a jam, and eventually find a way to right a wrong or find a peaceful, smart solution to the problem.

"A good chunk of child therapy is called play therapy," Jacobsen said. "Half the time they're focused on the game, and they don't realize they're gaining skills." Foothill's budget for this year's summer therapy camp was $25,300, or about $72 per kid, covered mainly by a grant from Santa Clara County. The sum covered personnel costs, supplies and snacks for the kids, but there was little or nothing left for follow-up studies.

"That's the hard part, the goal," Jacobsen said. Ideally, Foothill center and the school district would follow troubled kids in therapy programs through high school to figure out what works best. "High school is where you want them out of therapy so they can concentrate on their future." Eldon Brown doesn't need long-term proof. The painter and welder is already sold on the Peace Builder summer therapy camp. His 6-year-old son, Ivan, was getting into fights at school after being teased and bullied for a peculiar habit--he would bring his face up too close to classmates and grab them for attention. Brown said the fallout has left the boy frustrated, confused and often unable to express himself.

But after a peace camp lesson on how to praise other people properly, Ivan went home and told his mother he had something important to say to her, "Mommy, thank you for making waffles for us this morning."

His father said the boy had never thanked anyone so respectfully before.

This post originally appeared on www.MercuryNews.com on 8/17/2015, and was written by Joe Rodriguez.



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