Children's Voice May/June 2006

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Replenishing the Toys Katrina Took Away

Like most Americans who watched Hurricane Katrina's horrible aftermath unfold on their televisions, Dottie Gruhler couldn't get the images of what she was seeing out of her head. The hundreds of children left homeless, hungry, and stranded were what most affected her.

"I had nightmares about kids sleeping on the roof, waiting, cold, hungry, and scared," Gruhler remembers. "It made me want to throw up."

Within days after the massive storm, Gruhler, who lives in Smithsburg, Maryland, decided she had to do something to help. Thousands of families' lives had been interrupted. Parents struggled to simply put a roof over their heads and food on the table. Meanwhile, the children who had been affected waited for normalcy to return.

Toys, Gruhler realized, could restore some semblance of happiness to the children's lives and alleviate some of the parents' stress. With this in mind, she began her hunt for toy donations. She placed donation boxes at local schools and churches, and sent queries over craigslist.org, Nola.com, and other websites. She decided to name her effort Katrina's Toybox, with the goal of collecting toys through December 2005 so she could brighten the holidays for as many children affected by Katrina as possible.

At first, with reports of scam charities playing on peoples' sympathies after Hurricane Katrina, Gruhler had a hard time convincing people to give to her cause. But she set up a website and continued knocking on doors, and the toys started trickling in. She put the money donations toward renting a truck to transport the toys to and from a storage unit, tape to seal gift boxes, and postage and shipping costs.

Realizing Katrina evacuees were scattered nationwide, she asked families to register for help via her website, katrinastoybox.com. With the help of a Louisiana-based organization called Katrina's Angels, Gruhler began conducting background checks on online registrants to confirm they were Katrina evacuees.

Then, a radio station in the South gave Katrina's Toybox a plug on the air last fall, and the toys started coming in by the thousands. At the same time, as Christmas approached, more and more parents began to appeal for toys through her website.

With the help of family and friends, Gruhler was able to get most of the toys shipped to families by the holidays. In December, they worked every night after Gruhler put her three children--ages 2, 4, and 10--to bed, until 3:00 am. But being a grassroots effort, they were still sorting toys and filling boxes by mid-January, placing letters from Santa inside, apologizing for being late.

Gruhler estimates that Katrina's Toybox has garnered more than 5,500 toy donations and about $6,000 in money donations--much of which she used to purchase gifts for older children and infants, two age groups for which she received fewer gifts.

Gruhler is completing paperwork to register Katrina's Toybox as a nonprofit organization. She wants to continue the effort as a year-round charity for children who have suffered losses from other natural disasters, including storms, fires, and mudslides. Gruhler says this time around, she will focus on collecting toys before disaster strikes.

"This has touched me in a way I didn't think it could and, for that reason, I've decided not to stop," she says.

Registered Nurses and Young Families Partner to Plan Healthy Futures

A few years before the birth of her own child, 11-year-old Dominique * would regularly be left to care for her infant brother for several days at a time in their Los Angeles home while their mother visited a boyfriend. During her mother's absence, Dominique would also clean the house and pay the bills, in addition to going to school.

Forced into a premature adulthood with little exposure to nurturance, Dominique had no real maternal role model to turn to when learning, at age 16, she was pregnant. Alone and without resources, her prospects seemed grim, but Dominique learned through the Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP) that life is not over at 16.

Mary Beth Wenger, a nurse educator for NFP--a nonprofit organization that works to improve the health and well-being of first-time parents and their children--was assigned to Dominique's case while working at the NFP site in Los Angeles County. During their initial visits, Dominique was aloof with Wenger, who, as far as Dominique was concerned, could have proven to be unreliable and inconsistent like every other adult in the teen's life.

Initially, Wenger met with Dominique every week for a month and continued visits every two-and-a-half weeks for six months during Dominique's pregnancy. They discussed prenatal health, what to expect when the baby arrived, how to care for an infant--including how to feed, play, and respond to crying--how to baby-proof the home, and what goals Dominique was planning for her own life, an objective too often neglected by teen mothers introducing a baby into their lives.

Dominique quickly learned that caring for her child would be even more challenging than she initially expected, after her son was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder. Fortunately, Wenger was available to guide her through this journey, making weekly visits for the first six weeks after the infant's birth. Thereafter, Wenger continued her visits every two-and-a-half weeks until the baby's second birthday, when Dominique graduated from the program.

During the baby's infancy, Wenger discussed not only his health and needs, but Dominique's as well. Before Dominique's son could walk, Wenger discussed how to prevent falls. Before Dominique could begin to feel trapped by circumstances, Wenger had her complete "My Dream Sheet" so she could assess where she imagined herself and her family in three years. Wenger encouraged Dominique to dream and plan for a bright future full of education, opportunity, and promise for her and her son.

"It's important for us to acknowledge that we can't solve our client's problemsOethat changes come over time, and that sometimes the miracle is just the relationship itself," Wenger says, reflecting on her experience with Dominique. "I felt the success achieved with her was the building of a therapeutic relationship, where she felt safe to share her innermost thoughts and needs and to begin envisioning a life different than what she had experienced."

Dominique and Wenger's relationship is an example of how NFP works to provide an effective means to seemingly intractable problems facing young mothers nationwide. Currently, NFP serves 20,000 families in 20 states. The program is voluntary and free to young mothers, who commit to a two-and-a-half year relationship with the same registered nurse, amounting to roughly 64 visits. The visits begin no later than the 28th week of pregnancy.

David Olds started NFP as an undergraduate student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in the early 1970s. While working in an inner-city day care center, he observed the center's services provided too little too late. He realized early preventive measures in pregnancy and child rearing were necessary to positively alter the effects of multiple generations of behavior.

Subsequently, Olds and his colleagues developed the framework for NFP and began to research the benefits of home visitation programs for young mothers. Olds is now a professor of pediatrics, psychiatry, and preventive medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, where he directs the Prevention Research Center for Family and Child Health.

Olds, under the auspices of the University of Colorado and NFP, has conducted research and clinical trials for the last 25 years to demonstrate NFP's effectiveness across a diverse array of demographics. Prenatal preparation appears to be the key to the program's success, acknowledging that once a child is born and seeking help, he or she already faces an educational and social handicap. Each nurse carries a caseload not exceeding 25 clients, allowing for special and individualized attention for each family.

Wenger's guidance helped Dominique establish a healthy home for her son, and in the process, Wenger and Dominique established a safe and reliable relationship, allowing Dominique the opportunity to confide in Wenger. At the end of one visit, Dominique scrawled on a home visit encounter form, "Thank you for listening to me," and returned it to Wenger.

Even though Dominique could not speak the words, the message was clear to Wenger that her influence had a positive effect. Reflecting on her six years working for NFP, Wenger, who now works in the program's national office in Denver, says, "When I first began working for NFP, I could not imagine how this program would not only change clients' lives, but mine as well. I still find it inspirational to support these young women."

Visit www.nursefamilypartnership.org for more information on NFP.

--Ann Blake, Children's Voice Contributing Editor

Responding to Young Offenders

Fourteen-year-old "Brian" was caught carrying marijuana into his school. Possession of drugs on school grounds carries severe penalties in Illinois. Brian's case qualified for automatic transfer from juvenile to criminal court, even though he had never been in serious trouble before.

The state's attorney offered Brian an alternative: He could appear before a Community Panel, a group of trained volunteers from his own neighborhood who would listen carefully to all parties involved and come to a resolution. With the panel's encouragement, Brian accepted responsibility for his actions and agreed to make restitution to the community in a way that built on his interests and abilities: He would put his passion for movies to work by making a short video about the consequences of drug dealing. With the help of panel members, Brian arranged to have his video viewed and discussed by youth at his local community center. In addition, Brian was referred for math tutoring to improve his grades at school.

Each year, more than 20,000 young people become involved in the juvenile justice system in Illinois. Most of them haven't committed violent crimes, but once they've entered the system, many will become more deeply involved. Too often, neither the youth nor their communities will benefit from the experience.

As a result, some advocates of juvenile justice reform in the state are exploring informal, community-based mechanisms as an alternative to juvenile court for some young offenders. These new solutions can be a positive and powerful force--an opportunity for communities themselves to respond to crime and reinforce their values, and for youth to reconnect with the community.

Community Panels for Youth (CPY) is an example of that approach. Built on principles of restorative justice, CPY creates open dialogue among the young offender, the victim, and community members. In a neighborhood setting, the panels address the harm done to the victim and the community, seek ways to meet the youth's individual needs, and build relationships that strengthen the social fabric of the community.

Cheryl Graves is director of the Community Justice for Youth Institute, which coordinates the program. "The hearings give youth, victims, and their families an opportunity to speak from the heart, listen to each other, and discover that they're not so different from one another," she says. "Young offenders learn that they made some bad choices, that they hurt someone, and they're held responsible for their actions. But they aren't marginalized. Through the process, young people discover their value to the community."

CPY began in Chicago's Austin neighborhood in 1997 and now operates in seven of the city's most disadvantaged communities. Its success rate is impressive: 85% of the young offenders entering the program have had no further juvenile court contact. In contrast, the recidivism rate for youth processed through juvenile court is around 60%.

Community Panels go beyond accountability and restitution; they actively seek ways to help young offenders build the competencies that will help them develop into responsible, contributing members of the community. This is often the panel's most difficult task.

"Some of the youth need mental health counseling or drug rehab," Graves says. "But more often than not, they just need engaging afterschool programs and positive adult role models."

The only way young people won't be on the street, she adds, is if they have access to something that interests them--whether it's chess clubs, video-making, or softball practice. In the communities served by Community Panels, few of these programs exist; those that do generally won't take youth involved with the courts.

"It's not just the youth who need to be held accountable," Graves emphasizes. "It's the responsibility of the community, the city, and the private sector to ensure that all young people have what they need to develop into healthy adults."

Addressing this need, the Community Justice for Youth Institute has established community-based advisory boards to help identify local and nontraditional resources. The boards quickly learn where the gaps are, and they become powerful advocates for community programs and services.

"Restorative practices have tremendous transformative potential," Graves says. "People realize they have the capacity not only to resolve their own conflicts, but to effect positive change in their lives and their communities."

Adapted from an article in the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's fall 2005 newsletter, which was devoted to the issue of juvenile justice. The Foundation's Models for Change initiative aims to accelerate systemwide juvenile justice reform in Illinois, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Washington, in hopes the results will serve as models for successful reform in the juvenile justice systems in other states. More information is available at www.macfound.org.

Gymnastics as a Therapeutic Playground

The first time 7-year-old Taylor Partington tried gymnastics, he threw a fit because he didn't like putting chalk on his hands so he could grip the uneven bars.

Diagnosed with high-functioning autism, known to manifest obsessive-compulsive behavior, Taylor was so hypersensitive that he washed his hands constantly for fear of outside elements, such as dirt on the playground, says his mom, Aggie. "He had real issues with using his hands," the Southern California parent recalls. Taylor's behavior often alienated him from other children his age.

But after his first time in a program designed for kids with special needs, Taylor's tantrums stopped. Today, he can hang from the bars with chalk on his hands for 15 seconds straight--a milestone for a child who was so overwhelmed by his phobia he wouldn't use his hands, even when he slipped and fell.

Beyond the gym, Taylor now enjoys riding his bike and other things he shied away from before, boosting his confidence with his peers. He also has better control of his body, and if he throws fits away from the gym, they aren't as severe, Aggie Partington says. "My son has shown more improvements after four sessions at Big Fun than he has in two years of occupational therapy."

Taylor is one of 1,500 U.S. children who have experienced the benefits from Big Fun, a therapy and recreation program that operates at 16 established gymnastics sites in the nation for youngsters with cerebral palsy, autism, mental retardation, Down's syndrome, seizure disorders, and other special needs, says founder Gene Hurwin.

With a crew of coaches who work one-on-one with each child, Big Fun tailors activities based on tests in motor planning, organizational behavior, and sensory integration.

"Gymnastics is the ultimate sensory playground, and as a movement learning form, is particularly potent for children with special needs," says Hurwin, who has a master's degree in occupational therapy and more than 20 years experience as a gymnastics coach. "As the body develops, the constant sensory bathing gymnasts receive lays the neuronal foundation for efficient brain integration, the product of which has an effect on how children develop and use concept logic, language acquisition, and visual acuity, to name a few."

For the children at Big Fun, launched in 1999, the goal in gymnastics is to learn how to learn, Hurwin says. A former competitive gymnast and member of the 1976 Olympic soccer team, he came up with the idea for Big Fun in college after he accidentally walked into an occupational therapy class and discovered a passion for the field and its relation to children with special needs. For him, gymnastics are a no-brainer to improve physical, behavioral, and cognitive needs for challenged youngsters.

He points to Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist who held that understanding brain function is the key to understanding the functions and dysfunctions of children with developmental disorders. Ayres promoted the concept of sensory integration--the organization of sensation for use. "It is this concept of organizing sensory input for use that is the very essence of gymnastics," Hurwin says.

A variety of obstacle courses, for instance, are known to improve children's ability to mentally sequence and help them organize attention during individual tasks. Use of the trampoline, swinging ropes, and tumbling mats increases their sensory processing abilities.

"Through gymnastics, all children get to experience the benefit of moving their bodies, climbing, reaching, grasping, even falling," Hurwin says. "The gymnastics environment can be used to construct a therapeutic playground, assisting some special needs children to become motivated and organized."

Big Fun is based on the premise that children seek fun because the main job of every child is to play, Hurwin says. In a play environment, children acquire their sense of culture, acceptable behaviors, social norms, and language, and it's the first active means humans use to organize the impulses of the body, including sensory information such as gravity, sight, and sound.

Jerry Bennett, coach and manager of Big Fun at Monarchs in Newbury Park and Agoura in California, recalled the first time he worked with Taylor and faced a 15-minute tantrum when the boy put chalk on his hands. "I put him in a situation where he had to deal with it," said Bennett, who offered Taylor the reward of washing off the chalk if he remained calm. Though Taylor still winces slightly when he dips his hands in chalk during his sessions, he remains calm because his brain has been retrained to understand he can endure the drill without harm, thus desensitizing his phobia.

Hurwin ultimately hopes to launch more Big Fun programs worldwide to dispel "cultural misconceptions" of what children with special needs cannot do. "Big Fun recognizes their potential and what they can do."

For more information, visit www.bigfungymnastics.com.

--Alicia Doyle
A freelance writer in Southern California, Doyle has worked for the Los Angeles Times and other California newspapers.

* Not her real name. Back


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