Children at Auberle in McKeesport paint murals in new therapy process


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For 11-year-old Caleb P., helping to paint a mural about a therapy process that takes negative emotions and funnels them into positive thoughts and action "was a really good experience."

Caleb was one of 20 boys, 10 girls and 25 staff members at the Auberle residential center in McKeesport to participate in the six-week project whose goal was to illustrate the virtues and practices of the Sanctuary Model, a therapy and management style adopted by the agency in the past 18 months.

The murals, which will be on display at the McKeesport center, were dedicated Monday.

With the Sanctuary Model, Auberle residents and staff have been trained to help the youth recognize how the trauma they've experienced in the past is connected to behaviors they are demonstrating in the present.

Youth who reside at the Auberle center have been placed there for such reasons as abandonment, abuse or delinquency.

The Sanctuary Model was originally created to help adult psychiatric patients deal with traumas from their childhood, but it was later adapted to be used in youth residential settings such as Auberle to create a compassionate, consistent response to children's behavior based on the belief that emotional behavior is likely tied to trauma they've experienced.

"They start to connect with what's happened to them and how that could be causing barriers in moving forward and how it caused pain in their lives," said Stephanie Walsh, Auberle chief operating officer.

"When normal child development is interrupted, it lowers the capacity for emotional regulation and behavior management. You see children not being able to control outbursts or being overly emotional," Ms. Walsh said.

"If we had a meter that could show a person's emotional regulation, we would see that a lot of the kids that we work with and their families, their meter is always so close to the top, something that would not push you or me over the edge would push them. They're hypervigilant and on guard so a teacher asking them to correct something on a piece of paper could send them off."

By his own admission, Caleb said when he first came to Auberle, "I used to break down in tears and have a fit." But after learning the concepts of the Sanctuary Model he is better able to manage his feelings and move toward a more peaceful and positive lifestyle.

The mural, he said, "was a really good way to cope with your thoughts."

He decorated his portion of the mural to show two arrows -- one pointing in the right direction and one pointing in the wrong direction, with the message "choose a good path."

At Auberle every staff member, from the clinical employees to cafeteria and maintenance workers, have been trained in the Sanctuary Model.

That means the youths who reside there should get a consistent response to their actions and behavior no matter what time of day or who they are dealing with at the center, administrators said.

"That means the kid who has an emotional response to the dumpster being emptied at 4 a.m., when there is no therapeutic staff, will get a consistent response. My staff needs to know how to properly respond to these things 24 hours a day," said Gary Hazy, director of residential services.

In addition, Mr. Hazy said, the staff has been trained in how to treat each other more positively and compassionately though the use of the model.

"The Sanctuary Model looks at this through a lens of how can we be more of a healer. How can we send a positive message. What it stresses is safety. Feeling emotionally physically, psychologically and socially safe," Ms. Walsh said.

Moving Lives of Kids

The Auberle youths and staff worked with artists from the group Moving the Lives of Kids, a professional muralist group that specializes in at-risk youth.

Artist Kyle Holbrook worked with the boys and artist Portia Hornick worked with the girls to create murals that illustrate the themes they've learned through the Sanctuary Model. The girls also created self-portraits with messages about where they see themselves in the future.

In the beginning of the process, the girls were hesitant to open up about themselves, Ms. Hornick said.

"But gradually, after they knew what they were doing with the paint and the art, they started to talk about their future selves. A lot of them said they wanted to make money, but then we talked about what are you going to do to make yourself happy," Ms. Hornick said.

One girl painted that she would like to play for the Women's National Basketball Association, another to be an actress and another to attend the University of Pittsburgh, then go to law school. Another identified herself as a veterinarian and painted paw prints around her portrait, while another girl identified herself as "blessed and highly favored."

The group portrait painted by the girls is a scene in which a flower is growing out of a green hillside. It has plenty of water and sunshine --all of the things it needs to be safe and to grow.

"We boiled it all down to the girls feeling safe," Ms. Hornick said.

Throughout the mural, the girls painted concepts they've learned from the Sanctuary Model, such as "trust, believe, patience, growth and change."

The boys did not paint self-portraits but instead spent more time learning team-building skills working on a larger mural where they each got to create an individual square expressing their feelings about what the Sanctuary Model meant to them.

Their mural, much like the mural created by 25 staff members, shows a chain of people holding hands and surrounded on the top and bottom by individual squares with encouraging messages learned through the sanctuary training.

For instance, the boys decorated squares around such themes as courage, success, choosing the right path and open communication. One painted an alligator and wrote, "don't bite the hand."

Teamwork

Trevon P., 15, decorated a square with a cross to show that "you stay with God and he will help you through problems for the rest of your life."

Trevon said the mural project was fun because he learned how to paint and work with others but that it was also therapeutic in that "it helped me cope with the troubles in my life. It released a lot of what I was carrying around."

Trevon showed such leadership skills among those he worked with that Mr. Holbrook said he is going to hire him to work on other mural projects with other groups his firm supervises.

During the mural process, the boys learned to work as a team, but it didn't always go smoothly. However, when there were frustrations they used principles of the Sanctuary Model to guide their emotions and reactions, Mr. Hazy said.

Mr. Holbrook said the mural project was much more than an art lesson.

"It's not just about creating a pretty picture, though I think we did that. It's about a reflection of what they are learning and it's a way to live your life," Mr. Holbrook said.

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Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1590. First Published September 12, 2013 4:00 AM


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