In this Spotlight, we talk Cecelia Christmas from The Children’s Center of Hamden (Conn.), who has been running TOP® in CT clubs since the project’s inception.
Q. Tell us about some of the Community Service Learning (CSL) projects you helped facilitate this past year.
A. In one school we did a ‘Fun-day’ where we had a double-dutch jump rope competition and a basketball tournament and food; the kids really liked that. In another school we had a games competition with checkers and chess and various other games. In another club we made food for a homeless shelter, which the kids really liked. We’ve also made hygiene packs for homeless shelters, have volunteered at the animal shelter and soup kitchens and the Connecticut food bank and we’ve made meals for the Ronald McDonald house too—everything has been really well-received on both ends.
Q. What positive feedback have you received from the teens you work with?
A: One kid told me that TOP® was “the sh*t”—which is a big deal coming from a kid! That’s quite a compliment—he really enjoyed it! Another kid told me, “I like TOP®; we get to hang out, we talk about sex and talk about other things we don’t get to usually talk about. We like this [program]!” So that’s some pretty positive feedback. For the most part they enjoy it, they enjoy the genuineness of James and I [the other co-facilitator]; they see us in a different capacity than their other workers. We have a connection with them, and we really build a rapport when we do a CSL with them.
Q. What is the most challenging part?
A. The most challenging thing is getting the kids to buy into the program. If they’re not buying in they won’t participate and will do whatever they can to get you to leave. Once they buy in and they understand that you’re there for them, it works really well. It’s also hard with a new group to get them engaged with community service learning [CSL], because it’s totally different than anything they’ve done before.
Q. On a scale of 1 to 10, how hard is it to run TOP® clubs with the young people in your groups?
A. Maybe a 5 or 6 depending on the club; each one is different. Some clubs are self-sufficient, with others it’s more like pulling teeth and it’s harder to get the kids engaged if they’re already having a rough day.
Q. Some people say that kids in care can’t really do community projects, but you have been able to do them successfully. Based on your experience, what would you say to someone who thinks it can’t be done?
A. It can absolutely be done. Getting the kids engaged is key. Getting their input is also important, even though some of their ideas can be outlandish. Letting them know they have a choice of what to do is crucial. My co-facilitator talks to the kids about being the CEO of a company, or a party planner, to help them think about managing the CSL projects. We let them take ownership of it and a lot of the groups really run with it. Giving the kids ownership is key—it’s theirs, it’s something they want to do and that goes a long way.
Q. The research shows that the community service aspects of TOP® are really important to it ‘working’. How has it made a big impact on the teens in your experience?
A. It gives the kids the opportunity to try new things and do something themselves. Even though a lot of their options have been taken away, this is something where they can have a little control and choice and that is huge for them. Everything is structured in their lives [in residential care], so when they have the freedom to do something on their own, it’s really important. It helps put their problems into perspective to realize that other people have problems too—and sometimes problems that are worse than their own.
Q. Which discussions or lessons are the favorites for the teens? Why do you think they like these the best?
A. Our discussion on values is always good. The girls like to talk about relationships and what makes a good relationship and the guys enjoy talking about sex and girls. These are conversations that they have amongst themselves personally, so having an adult debunk some of the myths they hear—they like that. They like talking about what’s appropriate in a relationship, what’s not; they really appreciate that. We’re all creatures of wanting connectedness, and they’re at the age where they’re really trying to figure that out. A lot of the girls are quite negative when we talk about their friendships with other girls because they’ve had such bad experiences [in those types of relationships], so having discussions about what is love, what is friendship—the kids really need that. Often times 45 minutes isn’t enough time—they have so much they want to talk about. Having an adult who understands them is really helpful.
Q. What kind of changes have you seen in the young people in your clubs?
A. There are a couple schools that we go to where the kids are really excited for us to show up, it’s so great to see—that’s really positive feedback. We have one club that is at the cap of 25 kids because of positive word of mouth—the guys in the club keep saying how much they like the program, so other kids keep signing up and now we’re at capacity.
I also see growth and maturity in a lot of the teens. We have a couple of kids who were in residential, but are now outside the program and in regular school where we see them for groups—and they have a lot more sense of responsibility. There are also kids that used to be in our residential program [through TCCH], but they’re doing so well that they’re not even in TOP® anymore. So, on the one hand, they’re not in our program, but it’s because they’re doing so well—and isn’t that the goal? One particular girl, she was in residential for about a year and she gave us a run for our money. She always said she hated the groups, hated us, etc., but once she started attending some of our clubs and getting to know me and James, she really started to like it. We saw a big change in her and, in fact, once in the summer she basically ran the group all by herself; she led the group and talked about how much James and I had had a positive impact on her and her development. She would come into our office to talk and process and I think it really helped her. She’s not in residential anymore—so that’s a real success story.
Q. How is your experience different this year, compared to last year?
A. This year has been a lot better—we’ve worked out kinks, we have a better rapport with the schools and the kids. We’ve improved our paperwork and have a good feel for how things should flow both inside the Children’s Center and externally. We have our routine, we know how things are going, and our facilitation style has gotten a lot better, too. It’s been really positive for the kids to see two adults of the opposite sex who aren’t in a relationship work well together, and see that we get along, which is a rarity in most of their lives. That part is especially having a positive impact on the kids.
This Q & A was conducted by Research Associate Mindi Wisman in January 2014.