Organizations that serve needy kids are seeing a spike in the number of children affected by the state’s drug epidemic. And they’re responding with special programs to support and nurture these youngsters.
Monica Gallant is director of prevention services for the Boys & Girls Club of Souhegan Valley and director of the club’s Community Action for Safe Teens (CAST) committee. A few years ago, her program began hearing from school principals and counselors that they were seeing more youngsters who had lost a parent because of substance use disorders, she said.
Her agency’s traditional mission is “to serve youth that need us most,” Gallant said. “And this population, the children who are impacted by a loved one’s substance use disorder, is often the forgotten population in all of these treatment and recovery conversations.”
Scientific research has shown that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as parental substance abuse, domestic violence or sexual abuse can lead to negative physical and mental health issues later in life. But that outcome is not inevitable: there’s also growing evidence that the involvement of caring adults in a child’s life can offset, even prevent, those ill effects.
Based on information about ACEs and trauma, CAST put together the Children’s Resilience Retreat, a monthly program for youngsters in grade one and up (svbgc.org/programs/c-a-s-t/). “The potential of this program is that it can reduce mental health issues down the road,” Gallant said, “if they can learn how to cope with their feelings and they’re not holding it inside and suffering in silence.”
“Most of the kids are living with grandparents or a single parent,” Gallant said. “They’re so appreciative of the program, and the kids absolutely love it.”
From trained volunteer mentors and a licensed counselors, youngsters learn coping skills and self-care — and they learn that they’re not alone. They prepare meals together and go on excursions such as hiking, rock climbing or a ropes course. The idea is to provide “healthy risk-taking experiences,” Gallant said, so the kids learn positive ways to relieve stress.
The youngsters also do service projects, most recently making blankets to donate to hospitals for babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome.
Asked what these kids need most, Gallant replied: “Attention.”
“Someone to listen to them, basically,” she said. “Some of the kids have … told us before they started in the support group that they didn’t have anybody that cared to listen to them, and that it’s nice to know that people care.”
UpReach Therapeutic Equestrian Center offers a seven-week “Resilience Reins” program for youngsters 8 and up (www.upreachtec.org/). The curriculum is designed for children who have experienced trauma, said Kristen McGraw, the center’s program director. “We’re trying to provide these kids the skills they need to be resilient individuals and move forward in their lives,” she said.
This is not a horseback riding program. And, McGraw said, “It’s not individual therapy; it’s not even group therapy.”
It’s all about the kids interacting with the horses. “Horses break down barriers,” said McGraw, who uses her own friendly animals in the program: Vader, a miniature horse, and Darcy, a Shetland pony. “The horses are really the ones that create the environment and teach the lessons,” she said.
Horses are keenly attuned to their environment, she said. Unlike dogs or cats, horses are prey animals, she explained, so “they’re always worried about their safety.”
And since horses are extremely sensitive to the emotional state of humans, they provide a kind of immediate biofeedback for the youngsters, who learn about communication, connection, security and trust from the animals. McGraw recalled one little girl who complained that Darcy was being “wiggly” one day, and then admitted she was feeling pretty wiggly herself. McGraw encouraged the child to take deep, calming breaths — and the horse instantly quieted.
Kids are broken into two groups, 8- to 12-year-olds and 13- to 17-year-olds. While their parents meet in a large room, the children work with the horses, facilitated by a behavioral health professional and McGraw. When the separate sessions are done, they all come together for a group dinner, prepared and donated by volunteers.
There’s currently a waiting list for Resilience Reins, which is supported by grants from local organizations such as Granite United Way, Kiwanis Club of Manchester and IPA Foundation; McGraw is hoping to raise enough funds this year to add a second group.
Diane Fitzpatrick, CEO of the Manchester Boys & Girls Club, said her club’s after-school and camp programs also are serving youngsters who have lost parents to the opioid epidemic or whose parents are in jail because of it. She said these kids “need to know that there is somebody there for them. They need to know there’s a safe place they can count on.”
Her organization is partnering with other agencies to help these kids and their families, Fitzpatrick said. “We’re that safe place each and every day,” she said.
One group working with the Manchester club, Friends of Aine, offers free bereavement support groups to youngsters as young as 4 and right up through the teen years. It was started by Christine and David Phillips of Bedford after their daughter, Aine, died from a sudden illness and they found there were few resources to help their younger daughter cope with her grief.
Lisa Wallace is a founding board member, and a friend of the Phillips family. “Their entire mission is to support grieving children and families,” she said.
Like the other groups, they’re starting to hear from caregivers of children who have lost parents to the opioid crisis, Wallace said. In many cases, she said, the adults around these kids, grandparents for example, are grieving themselves. “They call these kids the silent mourners,” she said. “They get lost in the shuffle.”
Finding a peer group, she said, helps kids deal with their sadness and confusion. “They realize they’re not alone, and their feelings may be common,” she said.
Cheryl Taylor of Milford has been bringing her 8-year-old daughter Grace to the Children’s Resiliency Retreats hosted by the Boys & Girls Club of Souhegan Valley. And Grace “has begun to blossom,” she said.
At the retreats, Taylor said, Grace gets to spend time with other children who have similar life stories. “They help her to know that there are other people out there in her community that do care.”
Her daughter was born with neonatal abstinence syndrome because of her birth mother’s drug use; Taylor and her husband, who have other grown children, became first her foster parents and then her adoptive parents.
Here’s what Taylor hopes for her daughter: “I want Grace to grow and be able to live a happy, healthy life, and to be free of the past and not carry that baggage with her into adulthood,” she said.
“Try to break that cycle. That’s my goal.”