Staffers at the Community Health Awareness Council (CHAC) have seen just about every problem a child could have, from substance abuse to low self-esteem. These days, they're adding economic anxiety to the list.
Monique Kane, CHAC's executive director, told of one local girl in elementary school whose family's economic needs led to a sudden decline in her grades, which previously had been very high. When her school counselor turned to a CHAC staffer for help, they learned that 12 other people had moved in with the child's family. With so many more adults suddenly living in one small apartment, she couldn't concentrate and her homework suffered.
"We were amazed at how many little pairs of shoes were outside the door," said Kane.
This situation is not unusual, she added. Many families in the area are doubling and tripling up to cover the cost of rent.
CHAC provides counseling to children, teens and their families for a wide variety of therapy including group therapy, couples' therapy, one-on-one counseling and after-school programming. The eclectic approach and sliding payment scale allow the organization to serve many different people with different kinds of problems, said Kane.
CHAC also works in partnership with other local organizations to best meet the needs of their clients. For example, if a homeless family comes in for counseling, CHAC staff can also put the family in touch with a shelter.
This year, CHAC will benefit from the Voice's annual Holiday Fund, which allows readers to donate to seven local charities. According to Kane, the need is greater this year as the economic climate brings in a higher volume of clients.
"It's the year to give, if you can," she said.
The stress of the economic crisis, she said, has affected people irrespective of age or socioeconomic background.
Jamie Freeman, CHAC's public relations manager, said she has seen a very powerful trickle-down effect, where a parent's stress can harm the child's mental well being and translate into diminished performance in school.
But it's the goal of the counselors and interns at CHAC to help combat this effect, which works to everyone's benefit. Providing therapy to a child will help his or her family, said Kane. Similarly, the child's classroom will function better, as the teacher can devote more time to all students.
"If you save the child, you save the community," Kane explained.
Sarah Ross is a first-year intern at CHAC who works closely with children toward this goal. Through CHAC's collaboration with local elementary schools, Ross provides counseling during the school day, mostly to children identified by their teachers.
Ross recalled one boy whose class was busy painting when she came to pull him out for counseling. When she gave him the choice to stay and paint, or join her, he struggled to answer. Finally he replied, "I want to go with you because you're my friend."
Ross says that for children experiencing a lot of sadness, stress or loneliness, counseling is very important to them.
"It's really clear that it's pretty meaningful to children to have a space where they can just be themselves," she said. "Children experience a lot ... and for a child to be able to talk about that to an adult is really powerful."