Understanding trauma could be key to success in Camden youth program


    It didn’t make sense on the surface: Camden youth — many on the brink of homelessness — would often get anxious and uncomfortable after moving into new, bright, clean housing. A lifetime of trauma turned out to be the cause.

    A training program in Camden, one of the poorest cities in the country, has provided struggling youth with computer skills and jobs for more than 10 years.

    But often, young people in the Hopeworks program seemed to sabotage their new-found success, acting in ways that caused them to lose employment and opportunities.

    A new approach focused on the effects of trauma has helped staff intervene.

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    Stressing out in a peaceful setting

    A nice-looking house on a crumbling Camden block defines the paradox that was stumping the staff at Hopeworks.

    Father Jeff Putthoff unlocks the door and walks into a bright, sunny space. Artwork lines the walls of the living and dining rooms, complete with comfy couches and polished hardwood floors. Putthoff is the director of Hopeworks in Camden, and he says that, nice as it is, this space “stresses out” his clients.

    The spacious row home, which they call “The Crib,” was renovated for youth in the program, who are often on the brink of homelessness. It has a backyard, with chirping birds and a flowering tree. And, yet, those moving in usually hate it at first, says Putthoff. “Youth will begin to get anxious, they will oftentimes say, ‘This place is overwhelming me, I gotta get out of here.'”

    A similar problem was happening with the computer training HopeWorks offers, says Putthoff. His staff would help a young person to get a decent job and then they would “blow it up,” explained the Jesuit priest. “They underperform, they get angry, they don’t show up, they are unable to manage a schedule.”

    Putthoff’s staff was getting frustrated – and started to crack down, issuing ultimatums with youth, or barring them from coming back if they’d been late three times in a row. But tough love didn’t seem to work, either. That’s when staff began to learn about something called a “trauma-informed care”. Simply put, it poses a different question, explained Putthoff. “Not ‘why did you do something,’ we’re learning not to say to a youth ‘why did you do that?’ We’re trying to think about what happened to the youth.”

    Understanding how stress and trauma shape behavior, physiology

    “What happened” usually involves life-long poverty, unstable housing, violence at home and on the streets, abuse, neglect – what experts now like to call “Toxic Stress.” Putthoff says in order for youth to succeed, they have to understand how their life experiences have shaped them, and how they can develop new coping mechanisms.

    Latifah Kersey, 22, has been enrolled in Hopeworks for several months. She’s slender, with a serious face that shows signs of stress. Kersey moved a lot as a kid – and lived in some of the city’s most violent neighborhoods. “It’s hard, because you don’t know if you’re going to survive,” she recalled.

    The young mother has adapted through a variety of strategies, for example how to move about the city with baby and boyfriend. “If I have my son, my boyfriend has to stay behind me and watch, cause I’m watching in front, I can’t see what’s in back of me.” Kersey says she never relaxes, and is always looking out for signs of trouble.

    Asked if she can envision a life where she doesn’t have to watch her back, and can move about freely, she simply said, “No.”

    “It’s nowhere where you can walk freely,” she said, “because you see on the news people are getting killed everywhere.”

    Kersey says she would like to move to a safer neighborhood, and is working on her computer skills to be able to get a job.

    Father Putthoff says when viewed through this lens of life experience, the ‘get-me-out-of-here’ response young people have when first encountering the Hopeworks house suddenly makes sense. “They are very much ready to be attacked, so their bodies always have high levels of cortisol and adrenaline,” he explained. “Our youth, when they move into a new situation they stop doing that, so they actually have a physiological response to moving into a safer space that’s uncomfortable.”

    Addressing underlying trauma

    A growing body of research demonstrates the life-long impact of adverse childhood experiences. They can affect brain development and metabolism, can contribute to illness – the list goes on and on.

    So Putthoff and his team studied how to work with people who experienced trauma as children – for example 19-year-old Tyree Randolph, who just moved into the Hopeworks house.

    “I’ve been in a couple of fights in my house, a lot of arguments that ended with punching people in the faces and things like that,” said Randolph, who is slight, and soft-spoken.

    Randolph says his childhood included several all-too-common factors. His mother left when he was in his early teens. He dropped out of high school to make money, to take care of his younger siblings. He carried a knife or gun at times to protect himself. And, he’s taken to smoking marijuana to unwind. “Smoking helps me out a lot, it calms my nerves and relaxes my mind from running all crazy and wild,” he said.

    Offering new coping strategies

    Father Jeff says he had to learn to view this as a coping mechanism, not vice. “Even when you don’t agree with the behavior, even when the behavior can be ugly, the whole idea is that people are practicing behavior that makes them safe, for them,” he said.

    That understanding equips Hopeworks staff to suggest healthier strategies for coping: listening to music, going for a walk, working out. When a new tenant moves into the Hopeworks house, staff talk them through a list of emotions and physical sensations they might experience following their move. Staff members suggest a series of stress reduction techniques. Youth also examine their emotions – why it’s easier to get mad rather than admit sadness, for example, and understanding that sadness seems to be associated with vulnerability. Putthoff says Hopeworks has become a place that allows young people to understand why they do what they do. That’s a skill every bit as valuable as writing computer code.

    “We used to say the job is the opportunity, and what we want to say now is that the pain is the opportunity,” he said. “And obviously, as people begin to understand what hurts them and why they react, they are able to respond.”

    It’s a long road, but Putthoff says, he and his team now have a better map to help their clients along the way.

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