Author Archives: Renee Riebling

Eudora’s Story

Eudora is a participant of The Child Center of NY’s Cash+Community Works (C+C), a groundbreaking neighborhood-based initiative that invests in under-resourced families, trusts them with power, and connects them with peers so they all can rise together. C+C works on the premise that families are the experts on what they need to achieve their goals, and our job is to act as investors, advocates, and partners.

At The Child Center’s 70th anniversary gala, Eudora spoke powerfully about her experience as a promising entrepreneur. Watch the above clip to see how she was able to start a marketable business through C+C—and pay it forward.

January Photo of the Month: MLK Day Every Day

Participants of the Beacon Program at M.S. 226 celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., Day of Service

Participants of the Beacon Program at M.S. 226 celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., Day of Service (MLK Day) Martin Luther King, Jr., Day is an important day at The Child Center of NY. Programs across the organization mark the observance in unique ways that are meaningful to them.

One of those programs is our Beacon at M.S. 226 in South Ozone Park, Queens. The Child Center operates four Beacon programs, which are school-based community centers that offer year-round recreational and learning opportunities for children and adults. In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, our Beacon M.S. 226 elementary school students created MLK portraits, which you can see them proudly hold up in this month’s photo of the month.

In an accompanying discussion with Group Leader Vare McNeil, participants talked about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech. They spoke about what the themes of the speech mean to them. Participants agreed that, as fourth-grade student Amisha said, “No one should be mistreated because of their skin color.” They also talked about another core part of Dr. King’s character, which was the importance of always making sure you are “doing for others,” which is a core principle of The Child Center.

“The ideals that Dr. King stood for are the ideals we strive for every day: equity, kindness, service, and excellence,” says M.S. 226 Beacon Director Ronell John.

Ronell says he strives both to impart these values to his students and to live them himself. Citing another famous quote by the great civil rights leader, Ronell says, “’If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’ I walk into my program with this mindset because I want my participants and members of my team to know that I care about them and the work that I do. I try to model that dedication for our participants. They all have gifts and have so much to give to their communities. The participants and team members I am privileged to work with bring pride and honor to Dr. King’s memory.”

December Photo of the Month: Holiday Wishes Do Come True!

Bishop, 5, a participant in the afterschool program at Hammel Houses Cornerstone Community Center, is delighted to receive a plushy toy, courtesy of the Child Center holiday toy drive.

Bishop, 5, a participant in the afterschool program at Hammel Houses Cornerstone Community Center, is delighted to receive a plushy toy, courtesy of the Child Center holiday toy drive.Bishop, 5, just started his first year at Hammel Houses Cornerstone Community Center in Rockaway Beach, Queens. He was so excited to receive plushies as his gift through The Child Center of NY’s Holiday Toy Drive because “plushies are my favorite toy!”

Every year, The Child Center organizes a holiday toy drive for families for whom the holidays mean deciding between putting food on the table or providing a gift for their children. The Child Center Holiday Toy Drive aims to bridge the gap and bring unexpected joy to our families by offering new, unwrapped toys during this special time of year. Every dollar donated goes toward purchasing gifts. The impact of this generosity reaches beyond the tangible presents—it’s about restoring confidence and dignity to families who can create cherished memories for their children.

Krystle Raghubeer, the Hammel Houses Cornerstone Community Center’s director, states that all the kids were excited to receive the presents that they had wished for. Thank you to everyone who donated to the toy drive and made dreams come true this holiday season for children like Bishop!

While the toy drive made Bishop’s dream come true for the holidays, Krystle and her dedicated team at Hammel Houses Cornerstone Community Center work hard every day to ensure dreams that Bishop doesn’t even know he has yet can come true when he gets older. That’s because Cornerstone programs, funded by the NYC Department of Youth and Community Development and supported by our generous donors, offer children a safe and fun place, right in their own neighborhood, where they can continue to learn after the school bell rings and engage in enrichment opportunities, from STEM to the arts, that allow them to explore their strengths and discover all they are capable of. Cornerstones are open to the whole community so that members of any age can learn, grow, and build community. What a gift for the new year!

Editor’s Note: While our Holiday Toy Drive has ended, you still can support children like Bishop in making their dreams come true by donating to support our programming. Every dollar counts, and we will put all gifts right to work!

Replacing Obstacles with Opportunities for Migrant Families—Especially the Children

A Head Start classroom at The Child Center of NY’s Early Childhood Corona Center, where 10 to 15 percent of enrolled children are from migrant families. Photo credit: Vier Visuals

By Tanya Krien
Vice President, Early Childhood Education

A Head Start classroom at The Child Center of NY’s Early Childhood Corona Center, where 10 to 15 percent of enrolled children are from migrant families. Photo credit: Vier Visuals

A Head Start classroom at The Child Center of NY’s Early Childhood Corona Center, where 10 to 15 percent of enrolled children are from migrant families. Photo credit: Vier Visuals

Last month, I was honored to serve as a panelist for the Roundtable Discussion, “Children in Migration and Access to Services in NYC: Obstacles and Solutions Towards a More Inclusive and Cohesive Society,” sponsored by the NGO Committee on Migration, Subcommittee on Children in Migration. This event brought together experts and practitioners working to address the challenges migrants face with access to resources and education in NYC, especially for children and their families.

As Vice President of Early Childhood Education at The Child Center of NY, I oversee six Early Head Start and Head Start programs. These programs serve children under the age of 5 who are from low-income families and face other barriers to school success. While the children in our programs face incredible challenges, they start out with as much promise as any child. Year after year, our extensive data and firsthand experience show that with the right support, these children can and do flourish.

Of course, what constitutes the “right support” changes with the times, as everything does. It is up to us to evolve and ensure we are meeting the needs of today’s children and families.

Right now, we are seeing an influx of children from immigrant families who are living in homeless shelters. Additionally, more children than ever before are presenting with special needs.

During the panel discussion, I spoke about the experience of migrant children once they arrive here, what services are helpful, which services are lacking, and how we are—and should be—responding to their needs so that they can begin school ready to learn and begin life ready to thrive.

Here is what the right support for young children from migrant families looks like today in New York City.

More 1:1 attention. When children at such a tender age are continually displaced, their ability to form relationships is affected. They are not sure what to expect day to day, and this negatively impacts their ability to form secure relationships with their teachers and age-appropriate relationships with their classmates.

Immigrating to a new country—usually following and involving severe trauma—causes a lack of continuity on its own. That sense of instability is exacerbated by living in the shelter system, especially in light of a new rule that migrant families can stay in a shelter for only 60 days; they can reapply, but then they can be placed anywhere in the five boroughs. This means a child in our Head Start program in Corona, Queens, might be moved to a shelter in the Bronx and start all over again with new teachers, new children, new routines, and a lack of the kind of continuity that contributes to a child feeling safe and secure—that is, if they can even find a school that will enroll them.

We also see disruptive behaviors in the classroom as a result of children being overstimulated and unused to the structured environment. In a shelter, you have minimal toys and books, to say the least. Here, you have a plethora. Children who are unused to such an array want to see and do everything at one time, often without knowing the basics of how to play with toys or what a book is for. It may be difficult for them to transition from one activity to another. Sometimes they don’t have the language to say, “I want to play with this toy,” and it comes out as biting or hitting. With several children in each classroom fitting this description, the old paradigm of one teacher and one assistant in a classroom of 15 to 18 children is insufficient.

That is why we sought funding for a senior engagement specialist* who is a licensed social worker to provide mental health consultation and support to our Head Start staff, children, and families. This role is vital in classroom operations as well as in offering guidance to teachers and parents. For example, imagine a child who fits the description above: they are playing with a toy and are having a hard time transitioning to circle time. The senior engagement specialist might choose to give a task (sense of responsibility) to this child—for example, saying to the child, “Can you carry this book over to Ms. X for her to read?” This helps in the moment, and it provides teachers a model for future reference.

At the same time all this is going on, we are seeing a dramatic increase in children with special needs, such as learning disabilities and lack of language development. This applies not only to migrant children, but also American-born children who grew up during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, 10 to 15 percent of children in our classrooms had special needs. Since the pandemic, that number is expected to rise to about 40 percent once formal evaluations are conducted. Although our teachers are trained in teaching children with special needs, the demand right now is more than they can possibly meet.

Mental health support. Just the very experience of immigrating is a trauma in itself; on top of that, families also have the trauma of whatever circumstances prompted them to leave their home country, from extreme violence to extreme poverty. Accessible and affordable mental health care, offered in the language they speak and delivered by clinicians who share lived experiences with families, must be a part of any solution.

Estaphanie, an immigrant whose son is at The Child Center's Early Head Start

Estephanie, with her husband and son, also spoke at the roundtable.

Estephanie, a mom of one of our Early Head Start students, spoke beautifully about this at the roundtable. Estephanie and her husband immigrated here from Chile. Shortly after they arrived, Estephanie discovered she was pregnant, and the basement apartment they rented was flooded. Thankfully, Estephanie found our Early Head Start program for her son. True to The Child Center’s commitment to serve the whole child and entire family, a family worker at our program earned Estephanie’s trust and assessed the family for additional needs. The family worker talked to Stephanie about mental health services, and the family is now enrolled in The Child Center’s Early Childhood Mental Health program. These services—early childhood education and mental health—work together to give Stephanie’s son the academic and emotional bright start that Estephanie and her husband came to this country to give him—and which all children deserve. Equally important, Estephanie and her husband are getting the support they need, too.

Physical health services. Children are coming to our programs without the typical vaccinations and often with significant health problems, particularly dental issues. Our teachers, family workers, nurse-practitioner—whoever most connects to the family—are trained to recognize these issues and refer them to needed services in a way that respects families. The result is that almost all our families get the care they need, as you can see in our latest Head Start annual report.

Building relationships and trust. This was one of main points I spoke about during the panel discussion: Building relationships with families is the foundation on which all other progress is built. Families listen to us when we suggest mental health services or a visit to the dentist because our team is made up of credible messengers: people who share lived experiences with our clients and are embedded in the community. We build relationships with families from day one, and we never stop. This is important also because parents and other primary caregivers are children’s first and most important teacher. We want parents to be engaged in their children’s education so they can support their academic journeys long after their last day in our programs—and that engagement starts with relationships.

In her keynote speech, Dr. Najat Maalla M’jid, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Violence Against Children, noted that we have an obligation to protect the rights of children, and this right supersedes all other issues. This must be the underlying principle behind all policies and programs that serve children who migrate with their families to our city. They have the same rights as any other child—and, it’s important to remember, just as much potential, too.

*Thank you to First Rate for their generosity in funding this vital position, and to Excellence in Giving for presenting this opportunity.

Photo of the Month: Military Services

From left to right: John Coppola, Co-CEO of InUnity Alliance (formerly the NYS Association of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Providers); and the Child Center Military Services Team: Senior Director Julia Floyd; Edgardo Quinones, LCSW-R, Director of Family Therapy Services and Integrated Care Coordination; and Master Social Worker Xinling Yang, MSW

Veterans Day is a time to remember and honor the service and selflessness of members of our military. It is also a time to honor our commitment to them and their families. That is why this November, the team of our new Military Services initiative traveled to Saratoga Springs for the Ninth Annual Veterans Summit: “Front Sight Focused: Healing the Past for a Successful Future,” sponsored by the Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Providers of New York State (now InUnity Alliance).

“The conference provided a great opportunity to establish meaningful connections with allied services. We connected with various military services, heard inspiring stories of veterans benefiting from these connections, and we are eager to collaborate moving forward,” says Xinling Yang, MSW, who provides therapy to Military Services clients. “This new offering at The Child Center is a chance for us to make a tangible difference in the lives of veterans, their families, and their children, recognizing that family plays a crucial role in veterans’ reintegration into society. It’s an honor to stand by them and ensure they receive the support they truly deserve.”

Thanks to a grant from Mother Cabrini Health Foundation (MCHF), The Child Center is now providing Military Services at each of our three wellness centers. This new service is designed to honor and support those who served our nation, regardless of discharge, by providing specialized outpatient mental health and other services tailored to their unique needs. As with all Child Center programming, we take a whole-family approach: Supporting affected children and other family members is integral to our services.

“It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to shed light on the vital work that we do at The Child Center. To me, it’s fundamentally clear that when an individual makes the selfless decision to serve this country, their commitment is shared by their entire family. It’s a service that extends beyond the individual to their loved ones, and it’s this understanding that has driven us to develop dedicated services for families and veterans.

The experiences of those who serve are varied and complex, and the impacts on their families are equally so. Whether it’s a veteran returning home bearing emotional or physical scars, or a family member grappling with the anxiety and fear of their loved one’s return, we recognize the unique challenges they face.

As the daughter of two people who served in the military, I’ve experienced firsthand the diverse effects their service had as I grew up. It instilled in me a deep understanding of the importance of supporting the family members, particularly the children. It’s essential that we provide them with the resources to understand, cope with, and process their experiences.”

—Julia Floyd, Senior Program Director and longest standing member on the ASAP Veterans Planning Committee 

The Military Services team was excited to spread the word about this new offering to the veterans community and connect with other providers around the state at the conference. And conference attendees were excited to see how The Child Center’s Military Services have made serving the entire family a centerpiece of their approach.

“At the ‘Front Sight Focused’ conference, we gathered to discuss how we could strengthen services for veterans,” says John Coppola, Co-CEO of InUnity Alliance. “The Child Center was a strong voice at the conference and is a leader in efforts to ensure that the entire family receives attention when a veteran is in need. With programs like the NY Certification Board’s Veteran Supported Recovery and The Child Center’s Military Services, there is hope that veterans and their families will get the support and healing they need.”

Our Military Services team sees this new initiative, and especially the emphasis on the family, as an idea whose time has come and the fulfillment of a goal they all have shared.

“When I think about military services it takes me to a larger perspective: the family,” says Edgardo Quinones, LCSW-R, Director of Family Therapy Services and Integrated Care Coordination at The Child Center’s Cohen Family Wellness Center in Woodside, Queens. “When providing services, there is a parent, a sibling, or other relative that is reintegrating into the family system after deployment, and the function and functioning of the family system changes. Many times, the client is not aware of the impact the reentry has on the different members, including the veteran.”

Edgardo knows about this firsthand. “I am the child of a WWII veteran. Since my father’s deployment and discharge from the Army happened many years before I was born, I never connected some of my dad’s behaviors to the military. I just thought he was a strict guy who was setting me and my siblings ‘straight.’ The conference helped me better understand my dad and bring a new perspective into our dynamics and relationship. I am not able to share my insights with him since he has passed on, but I hope it will help me help those families going through similar experiences.”

If you or a loved one served in the military, regardless of discharge, and think you and your family might benefit from these services, please call us at 718-358-8288 or email us at We stand ready to help you build the future you see for yourself and your family!

Photo of the Month: Lights On Afterschool and Mental Health at Roosevelt Island Beacon

During Lights On Afterschool, Roosevelt Island Beacon staff wore their Kinder, Braver Together hats

On October 26, two of The Child Center of NY’s founding principles came together in a beautiful way at our Roosevelt Island Beacon at P.S./I.S. 217 in Manhattan. Staff and students celebrated Lights On Afterschool to shine a spotlight on afterschool programs while participating in the “Kinder, Braver Together” campaign, a partnership between The Child Center and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation to raise mental health awareness. This month’s Photo of the Month collage tells the story!

The Child Center began in 1953 as a single children’s counseling center, and a commitment to mental health remains at the heart of everything we do—from offering therapy at our wellness centers and at schools to embedding mental health in our early childhood education and afterschool programs.

That’s why we are so excited to announce that The Child Center is partnering with Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation and to make a profound impact on youth mental health. A key priority is to have as many people as possible obtain the Be There Certificate, which teaches the public to recognize when someone might be struggling with their mental health and how to safely support them while maintaining their own mental health. The Be There Certificate is a free, self-paced, interactive online course designed for young people but accessible to all.

The Child Center is committed to having all of our staff and community obtain the Be There Certificate. The Roosevelt Island Beacon team was among the first to earn their certificates, and we think they are rocking the “Kinder, Braver Together” hats they earned as a result!

The team proudly wore their hats during the program’s Lights On Afterschool event last Thursday (center photo in the collage above). Launched in 2000 by the Afterschool Alliance, Lights On Afterschool celebrates afterschool programs and their important role in the lives of children, families, and communities. The Child Center operates more than 20 such programs, and each year they join the national Lights On Afterschool effort to draw attention to the many ways they support students by offering them opportunities to learn new things—such as dance, robotics, and community service—and discover new skills. The events send a powerful message that millions more kids need quality afterschool programs.

This year’s Lights On event at Roosevelt Island Beacon was a collaboration between The Child Center and Youth Center, another afterschool program on the island.

“We came together to show the community the importance of afterschool programs and how integral they are to a young child. All the projects we showcased were created by the participants in both programs and featured the theme of lights,” Program Director Ricardo Turenne explains. “The students also spoke about how afterschool has helped them. They spoke eloquently and from the heart about how they have pursued their interests, formed friendships, got academic support to succeed in school, and discovered strengths they didn’t even know they had. It was inspiring. This is why we do what we do.”

September Photo of the Month: Community School M.S. 72 Celebrates Attendance Awareness

Seventh-Grader Leasia’s current year-to-date attendance is 100 percent.

September is Attendance Awareness Month, and there’s no better place to celebrate it than at Catherine and Count Basie Magnet School for Multimedia and Performing Arts M.S. 72.

The school’s theme this year is “Lights, Camera, Learn.” The bulletin board in this photo represents the Daily Homeroom Challenge, which involves classrooms competing for a place on the “Walk of Fame.” The homeroom class that receives the highest attendance percentage rate for the month is rewarded with a “Spin-the-Wheel” event to earn prizes such as Bluetooth headphones, free uniform attire, cosmetics, backpacks, snacks, and more.

M.S. 72 is what is known as a New York City Community School: a school defined by partnership between the school and an embedded community-based organization (CBO), like The Child Center of NY, that coordinates and delivers services to young people and their families—from mental health for students to adult education resources for parents and caregivers. Students, often known as “scholars,” receive high-quality academic instruction, and the CBO addresses barriers to academic success by collaborating with parents, teachers, community members, and, most importantly, students.

One of those barriers is absenteeism, especially chronic absenteeism, which New York City Department of Education defines as missing 20-37 days—a month or more of school—per academic year.

“If scholars aren’t in school, they can’t learn, they can’t be inspired, and they can’t be engaged. The more school they miss, the harder it becomes to catch up, and the more hopeless it all starts to seem. At the high school level, this cycle can cause dropping out to feel inevitable,” explains Saran Shields, Vice President of Youth Development here at The Child Center.

The Child Center works with its 18 Community Schools, from elementary to high school, including M.S. 72, to reverse this cycle so that scholars can be present and engaged in their learning—and see how much they are capable of.

Understanding that young people don’t exist as students in a vacuum, Community Schools support the whole child, their entire family, and their learning both inside and outside the classroom. For example, healthy young people attend more days of school, and so Community Schools offer services such as vision care, medical care, and mental health centers. The more time students spend at school, the more they learn, so Community Schools stay open after school and over the summer, offering enrichment activities such as arts, music lessons, and robotics.

With a strong school administration and support from our team, results are profound at The Child Center’s Community Schools. At August Martin High School in Jamaica, for example, the graduation rate rose from 24 percent in 2015, when The Child Center first became lead CBO, to a remarkable 73 percent three years later. The graduation rate now stands at 91.67 percent—higher than the NYC average of 83.7 percent.

At M.S. 72, the 2022-23 school year closed out with an attendance rate of 90 percent. It is currently at 91 percent with a goal of increasing that rate by 4 percent by June.

“The attendance team at M.S. 72 meets every week to continuously find ways to combat severely chronic absenteeism and chronic absenteeism,” says Nicole Johnson, community school director at M.S. 72. “These strategies include but are not limited to home visits, daily tardiness and absenteeism phone calls, parent meetings, and ongoing attendance incentive events throughout the year. Our team is extremely dedicated, and we are so proud of our scholars and their families for making education their priority.”

To learn more about how Community Schools help young people thrive, visit the NYC Department of Education’s Community Schools page, and to learn more about how The Child Center fosters increased attendance at its Community Schools, read Saran Shields’ 2018 blog post on the subject (yes, we have been working on this a long time!)

Program Spotlight: Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP)

Summer Youth Employment (SYEP) participants
Summer Youth Employment (SYEP) participants

SYEP participants show off the t-shirts they created and sold as part of a social justice project-based lesson (PBL).

It’s back-to-school season, and 15-year-old Ethan (far left in the above photo) feels ready and full of a sense of confidence he built slowly but surely this past summer.

That’s because Ethan spent July and August busily working his summer job at Benjamin Franklin High School, where he joined in team-building activities, participated in restorative justice circles, and developed work readiness skills. He even took an academic course for credit to boot! His days consisted of challenges to solve, people to greet, and a never-ending stream of important work to be done—and Ethan wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Ethan is a participant of The Child Center of NY’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP). An initiative of the NYC Department of Youth and Community Development, SYEP is the nation’s largest youth employment program, connecting NYC youth between the ages of 14 and 24 with career exploration opportunities and paid work experience. Through SYEP, participants explore different interests and career pathways, develop workplace habits and know-how, and engage in learning experiences that strengthen their social, civic, and leadership skills.

Brittany Dailey is the SYEP director at The Child Center, where she oversees SYEP programs at 10 schools. “When I started in 2019, we had 200 youths enrolled in our SYEP programs,” Brittany says. “This summer, we had 914 young people participating in SYEP.”

That figure includes 94 teens who are from asylum-seeking families. This is important, Brittany says, because these kids do not have Social Security cards, making it hard for them to find employment elsewhere. They often struggle financially and have faced hardships no child—or adult, for that matter—should have to face.

All 914 Child Center SYEP participants are between the ages of 14 and 21 and attend schools that The Child Center supports throughout the year. Those who are 14-15 years old, like Ethan, work on project-based lessons (PBLs) that focus on career readiness. For example, this summer they engaged in a Shark Tank-inspired PBL, through which they pitched products addressing social injustice. One participant created what he called “Bundles of Joy,” distributing baskets for people experiencing homelessness. Students learned how to pitch their ideas, write business proposals, and produce commercials. They made T-shirts with logos they created and explored social justice issues that ranged from climate change to LGBTQ+ rights to immigration and sold the t-shirts to support their cause.

Participants ages 16-21 were ready for real-world work experience. Through community partnerships, Brittany and her team placed participants with an array of local employers. Youth worked at restaurants and barber shops to get a feel for small business operations; the JFK Redevelopment Community Information Center to learn about careers in aviation; and the offices of New York State Senator Leroy Comrie and Assemblywoman Alicia Hyndman to get  an inside look at careers in public service.

New this year was an academic component to SYEP: Students had the opportunity to take an academic course for credit. This allowed teens to advance their scholastic goals while gaining important work readiness skills.

When the summer ends, participants are eligible for The Child Center’s Work, Learn & Grow programs, which help students make a smooth transition from high school to college and the “real” world by building college readiness, earning college credit, learning essential job readiness skills, and completing a paid internship.

“SYEP is important for so many reasons,” Brittany says. “It’s important because we don’t know why they need the money; some participants are supporting their families. We might think 100 dollars a week isn’t much, but it’s huge for an undocumented family, who may not be treated fairly by other employers who can take advantage of their vulnerable status. At 14 years old, these are the problems they have.

“It’s also important because now they’re not leaving high school not knowing what the work world is like. Through the internships, participants learn what they like, and even what they don’t like. They may discover they don’t ever want to work in a restaurant! They understand how taxes work. Teens like Ethan now know that they are capable of learning valuable skills and doing a job at a level of excellence that makes them proud. This is as crucial a part of their education as anything, and I love being a part of it.”

Eli’s Story

Eli, a client of the Cohen Family Wellness Center Youth Intensive Outpatient Program, with his cousin's dog, Leon.

Animals are just one of the things Eli loves in his life. Here he is with his cousin’s dog, Leon. “He’s just a pup (though he is huge),” Eli says. “I love him sooooo much.”

Hello! My name is Elijah, but people mostly know me as Eli.

Three years ago, in mid-December, I decided to try and take my own life. I was about 12 years old, not knowing anything but the harsh feelings I was feeling. Before I was hospitalized, I never had any encounters with therapists, psychologists, etc. I didn’t believe anyone would ever be able to help me; I truly believed life was not meant for me. Meeting countless licensed strangers, one after another, didn’t feel right for me, and every single one of them proved and heightened my belief. I have a hard time opening up, even now.

The next step was supposed to be the first step, but since I was in such a severe situation, therapy only started taking its first step after I found the right therapist. It doesn’t mean all of the other people weren’t good at their job, it just meant they weren’t right for me and the person I am. After a few trials and errors, I finally found someone I still believe is right and suited for me.

I never had the decision to even think of what I wanted to do with myself—if I even wanted to get better. After just a few sessions with my new therapist, I finally realized how deep in the hole I really was, how horrible the feelings I was feeling really were—and that I did want to get better. I didn’t want to feel the way I was feeling anymore. I was so accustomed to my own thoughts because I’d been living with them day by day. I thought I knew what life really was. Looking back, I was just a very afraid and vulnerable kid, and I still am, but I want to share my vulnerability today.

Accepting is the first step to growth. I accepted where I was at that point, and I was trying my best, with the help of my loved ones, to become a better version of myself. Maybe even the best. I didn’t even notice my change until my therapist pointed out how I was a lot more interactive in the conversations I had with her, much more in the moment and engaged. I was interested in others and learning to be interested in myself. Being here, in this world, didn’t seem as bad as I first thought it to be. It wasn’t anything big, I didn’t feel like I won the lottery, but it felt nice to walk to the park with my little sister, it felt nice to open doors for others as we smiled at each other, and it felt nice to share meals with my family, knowing how much work my mother put into each one. I started noticing the smallest things, which made living life feel nice. I realized my big feelings weren’t as big as I thought and started having faith in my future, not just for the long run, but for tomorrow. Life moved on. I started to do the same.

Therapy taught me a lot of things, especially the way I interact with myself and my mind. If I ever have the slightest thought of something negative regarding myself, my immediate reaction now is to ask myself why. Therapy also made me realize how others in my life were also struggling, maybe not as severely, but they were still struggling. Before I would barely speak to my parents; now I try to stay near them as much as possible … not always talking but having our presence within a close distance was enough. I have learned many ways to calm myself down during an episode or whenever I am having a rough time. It has also taught me patience for myself, and to not judge myself, like how I wouldn’t for others … admiring the simpler things and living in the present.

More importantly, I have learned that healing has no destination. For the short term, I would like to pass all of my classes and maybe even make a few close friends this school year. Right now, my only goal long term is to get into a good university and be able to provide for myself and my family. I feel more hopeful for my future.

Thank you, Diana, for letting me experience life as it is.

Response from Eli’s therapist, Diana Michelena, Program Coordinator, Youth Intensive Outpatient Program (Youth IOP), Cohen Family Wellness Center:

I’m so glad Eli decided to write his story—to inspire others, and so that he can see for himself his incredible gifts, strengths, and potential.

Eli is a 15-year-old transgender boy who initially presented with severe depression symptoms. He was reporting severe low mood, lack of motivation, urge to self-harm, multiple hospitalizations, and suicide attempts. Additionally, he struggled in school, refusing to attend for months. It is heartbreaking to see a young person in such distress, with them not knowing how special and unique they are. They don’t know it can be better, and I am so grateful it is my job to get them there.

Eli attended our Youth IOP, participating in multiple individual sessions a week. His mother also attended sessions, and we worked together to determine ways she could best support Eli. Family involvement makes such a difference, and the vast majority of families want to do right by their children and will do so, given the tools and chance.

The family also collaborated to support Eli’s academic concerns. We connected them to a school that specializes in students with emotional needs. Throughout the program, Eli made outstanding progress, and today he is a thriving graduate of the school and returned to public school this year. He has been able to connect to staff and students, reported finding joy in little things again, and has been making great effort to engage in the community around him. He reports that he hasn’t had suicidal thoughts in months. Most remarkably, Eli has just ended his Summer Youth Employment Program, which I know he is rightly proud of. I have no doubt that Eli will continue to make himself proud. He has come so far, after facing so many challenges. He is full of a promise he is now poised to realize, and I can’t wait to watch him soar.

Editor’s Note: If you are actively suicidal, go to your nearest emergency room or call 911. For anyone who is experiencing suicidal thoughts, help is available.

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