By Jeannie Russell
On a blisteringly hot day in early July some years ago, I took the long walk from the subway to a 52-family domestic violence shelter in the Bronx for my first day there as Director of Children’s Programs. I remember the heat so vividly as being part of my introduction to the world of the women and children I would be sharing my life with over the next few years, as well as the incredible strength and tenacity with which they confronted the challenging conditions and obstacles they faced in rebuilding a safe and emotionally thriving home for themselves.
I had worked for years with children and families who were homeless — first in the NYC welfare hotels before the city-wide shelter system was established, and then in that shelter system — providing educational and social service assessment, referrals, and on-site recreational and therapeutic programming. Patterns of intra-familial abuse, chronic dislocation from school and community ties, a pervasive loss of agency over basic life choices, and constant intrusion from an often profoundly disrespectful social service system were all common to the families I worked with in many shelter settings.
Every child I worked with had unique strengths and struggles — some benefitting from referral to longer-term and more comprehensive therapeutic supports — but all of them shared the hurt that comes from a breach in what child therapists call the “holding environment,” the deep grounding and protective space that should surround a child effectively enough to allow them to assume that they are cared for, and focus their energy on the business of creatively and joyously expressing themselves in the world. The work involved a constant challenge to balance responding to the many crises and immediate needs of our families with developing supportive programming for our childcare and recreational spaces that provided our youth the kind of emotional “holding environment” they needed. I was always looking for interventions that served multiple purposes: they had to be fun, very low- or no cost, flexibly appropriate for a range of ages and developmental levels, and supportive of core social-emotional needs.
Last year I had the opportunity in my current work with HEART to collaborate with the staff at the Urban Resource Institute’s PALS Place — one of the small number of domestic violence shelters in the city that allow families to bring their companion animals with them when they leave abusive homes — by adapting one of HEART’s newer resources, our Everyday Circles Cards, to the needs of this special setting. It’s been incredibly rewarding for me to bring these two phases of my working life together, and to offer staff in the shelters exactly the kind of programming tool I myself had always searched for.
Everyday Circles is itself a collaboration between HEART, the Peace Learning Center, and the Tribes Learning Community. HEART provided its humane education expertise and a set of active learning resources that foster empathy, reverence, and kind actions towards all living beings; the Peace Learning Center and Tribes contributed effective, evidence-based activities that promote restorative justice responses to conflict and harmful actions, and proactive practices for building a culture of respect and responsible behavior.
To leverage the strong bonds that young people feel with their companion animals and seize the opportunity to strengthen their roles as positive caregivers at a time when loss and anger can erode agency and self-esteem, I worked with staff at PALS Place to create a specialized Caring Circles program for the school-aged youth in shelter. The program arose from restructuring the presentation of Everyday Circles activities to create meaningful one-time or short-term group experiences to be used in transitional housing.
The Caring Circles program that HEART and PALS Place are piloting consists of youth groups facilitated by PALS Place staff that have been carefully designed to illuminate and practice the multiple ways that compassionate action in our relationships with other people, with the animals in our lives, and in our connection to the natural world makes our own day-to-day lives safer, healthier, and happier. Structured around the visualization of a Circle of Compassion that encompasses the people, animals, and places that participants care about, shelter youth practice mindfulness techniques, learn about and take leadership in adding to a set of Peaceful Actions for maintaining a respectful and kind group process, and play fun group games that nurture core social-emotional competencies and build empathy for the people and animals we share the world with, and for the living natural habitats that sustain us all.
Most of the Caring Circles games have a specific topic, and they are all designed to stimulate discussion that makes connections between that topic and core areas of social-emotional development. One example of this is an activity focusing on building empathy for companion animals that asks the participants to listen to a brief story about “Bailey the Dog.” Bailey loves to jump on his guardian’s lap, but he is now getting to be a very large dog and this is becoming uncomfortable for his guardian, so she is getting frustrated and angry with him. The activity then asks the group to share ideas about how Bailey’s guardian might train him not to jump on her lap, to think about whether punishment or humane training techniques are likely to be more effective, and to connect their brainstorm ideas for helping Bailey with how they themselves learn to act in ways that respect the needs of others.
While this activity has a clear humane goal of teaching good training techniques and maintaining a positive relationship with one’s dog, it also serves as a way of framing the importance of restorative strategies for responding to other people whose actions might be sources of anger and frustration. Not surprisingly, many youth can extend tremendous patience and compassion to animal companions real or imagined, while it is much harder to stay positive with their peers. In this shelter setting, where prior emotional and physical abuse has often been masked as “discipline” for “bad” behavior, it is so important that youth not only learn restorative practices for managing conflict, but truly feel that just like lovable Bailey, they are always fundamentally accepted, can learn ways to manage their impulses and express their feelings, and can even help others do that as well.
After consultation and staff training, PALS Place began implementing our Caring Circles program at one site in the beginning of February 2020. Needless to say, the pandemic crisis and lockdown that overtook us all in NYC shortly afterwards required the shelter to stop their recreation and other group programming after a few sessions, and they have since been focused on managing basic services and needs for their highly vulnerable clients. This partnership will continue when public health constraints are eased, and it has already served as a model for expansion of the Caring Circles program into other shelters, who are excited about its potential for enhancing the care they can offer to the children they serve.
Recognizing the innovative nature of this program and its potential to have a powerful and long-lasting impact, The Latham Foundation, which is dedicated to advancing the field of humane education, recently published an article that HEART wrote about our Caring Circles program in its Fall issue of The Latham Letter.
In the years that I’ve worked for HEART — often teaching in communities where homelessness and the conditions that create and exacerbate it are common — our lessons and resources have centered around some basic tenets: that all living beings have inherent value, that we are all deeply interconnected within our living natural world, and that we can build nurturing communities around compassionate action by understanding and engaging with the needs of others. These tenets are the building blocks out of which we can provide the “holding environment” that is so critical for every one of our children, especially in this time of overwhelming anxiety and loss. It’s a place that we all deserve to live in, where the inevitability of suffering is always answered by compassion, and the rights of all to thrive and express their fullest selves are championed.