New Philadelphia mural brings childhood trauma into view

A fanciful and colorful vision now adorns a Philadelphia office building, but its message is intended to bring more awareness to the serious issue of childhood trauma.

Mural Arts Philadelphia and the city’s behavioral health department Tuesday dedicated the new mural covering both sides of the building across Delaware Avenue from the SugarHouse Casino.

Its north side depicts a dreamscape of a theater production: A row boat made of a crescent moon floats on a watery stage, framed by a sunny, glowing backdrop and curtains made of flowers. On the other side of the building, its companion mural offers just as much whimsy, but it’s a look behind the scenes: A young girl pulls at puppet strings, showing the inner workings of the performance.

The mural represents the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center’s approach to working with kids with trauma, said Tony Vades, executive director of the center located in the building. Counselors help kids set the stage, so to speak, so that they can succeed in life despite the challenges that trauma poses.

“What ends up happening often — without treatment, without healing, without care — is that this stuff spreads,” said Valdes. “So now you have a whole family that’s been exposed to trauma — you have a whole neighborhood, a whole community.”

This ripple effect is common for trauma victims and the communities they live in, said Valdes. But that effect can be reversed with what he calls “protective factors” — if kids have enough supportive, loving relationships and feelings of safety. That’s where the backstage image comes in, said mural artist Meg Saligman who portrayed a young girl, supported by adults, who’s in control of the elements of her life.

“So behind the scenes you have multiple generations, setting the stage for this ripple effect to occur,” she said.

Saligman’s murals appear throughout the city. She created Knotted Grotto in honor of Pope Francis’ 2015 visit to Philadelphia, along with a mural for the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

The new mural was produced with the help of Porch Light, Mural Arts’ joint effort with the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, which uses art to promote mental health and wellness.

At the dedication ceremony, Mayor Jim Kenney commended the work for shining a light on the importance of trauma-informed care.

“Sad to say many of our kids see more trauma and violence in their neighborhood than soldiers often see in the battlefield,” Kenney said. “And that’s something that I know growing up I didn’t have to experience, but we need to address our kids’ issues where they live and where they learn.”

Each year, the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center works with more than 2,400 families whose children have experienced trauma. In 2013, the most recent data available, the Philadelphia Urban ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) study found that 40.5 percent of Philadelphia adults witnessed violence while growing up. That includes witnessing someone being beaten, stabbed or shot.

To that end, Kenney said the mural project is another step in his goal of making Philadelphia a trauma-informed city by understanding, recognizing, and responding to the effects of all types of trauma.

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