I am currently pursuing my Master of Social Work degree here in New Orleans. There’s a young man, Jay, that I currently work with whose experience I’d like to share. I found out about the problems he was having just in time for him to enroll in an initiative I started called the HUEman Development Program (HDP). HDP is a three-tiered intergenerational mentoring program based on entrepreneurship and leadership skill development with intentional pairing of mentees to their prospective mentors. We teach everything from math to life skills to meditation through a range of methods, including our weekly yoga class. We are working to undo negative coping skills that these young Black males taught themselves to survive in stressful, unsafe, and even hostile environments. We don’t want to have a student clam up when he’s anxious. We’re working to give them the emotional vocabulary to ensure they’re able to advocate for themselves if the need arises. We want them to be able to identify “I am feeling anxious,” and take steps to process, strategize, and implement the coping skills they’re being equipped with. All of the boys are living in a single-family home, so I’m also providing wrap around services for their parents and family systems. For example, when we have yoga on Wednesdays, the boys do yoga with their moms and their mentors. Similarly, one of our mentors is a chef and comes in once a week for our family dinners and cooks a family meal with their mothers where he teaches the boys to cook.
Returning to Jay, he’s fourteen years old and originally from New Orleans. His father brought him to Georgia to live with him from ages five to thirteen and he endured mental, emotional and physical (malnourishment) abuse while in his care. While he was visiting his mother in New Orleans over summer break in 2016 he told his mother that he was not going back to Georgia. So his mother brought him back to the Algiers Point neighborhood thinking he’d be safe in that environment, because everyone kinda knows each other. His mom didn’t really think much about allowing him to walk from the bus by himself in the afternoons and he created a consistent routine for himself for a couple months. Then one day a car full of White teenagers drove up behind him and started shooting him in the back with paintball guns. Jay fell to the ground, in the fetal position, because he didn’t realize they were paintball pellets; he thought he had been shot with a real gun.
The symptoms of trauma he showed before from the experiences of living with his father became exacerbated and he became even more withdrawn than when he first moved back to Louisiana. He’s having a really hard time coping with all of these horrible experiences and expressed thoughts like, “what did I do to have someone shoot me in the back with paintballs?” As shocking as Jay’s incident is, this wasn’t the first time it happened. I’ve heard of two other young men - all Black – getting attacked, and the perpetrators are a small group of White boys around high school age. It’s heart-wrenching to see the effect this malicious act has had on Jay. He’s become more withdrawn from his peers and started acting out in school. He doesn’t like to talk about the things he’s been through. He’s hesitant to share his true feelings, but you can tell just by his body language when he starts to address it that he’s in pain.
We’re working towards getting these guys back to normalcy, which, for everyone is going to be different. The HDP participants have to tell me three to five areas that they think they are interested in learning about. Then I pull mentors from my network in those particular fields and bring them into HDP to expose them to a variety of career paths. For example, for Jay, getting him back to playing football is a big thing and he’s trying out for the team at his new school this year. I believe it’s very important to the rebuilding of his self-esteem, so I have a group of guys training him to make sure that he’s prepared for tryouts. And it’s working! His whole attitude about engaging with unfamiliar people has changed since he’s been participating in the program. Before Jay didn’t want to leave the house, and now he’s the first boy to arrive. His mother also says he’s more willing to talk to her and not clam up when she’s just trying to have a conversation. He’s not as defensive all the time.
I feel really good that I’m creating a safe space for the children, the ones who need help but are the internalizers – the ones that are really quiet but are going through so much pain. I can identify with them based on my own experiences in middle and high school. I recognize that those transitions are hard and what it was like to feel alone. That’s why my focus as a social worker is adolescent trauma, because as a child there were things that I was not able to process in a healthy manner that I needed help understanding, like depression and anxiety. The children participating in HDP come to my home, a safe space that I have created, where I’m able to control the environment to assure them that I’m constantly working to make sure they aren’t triggered or re-traumatized.