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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.

Danny’s Story

Danny is a talented, hardworking young man who mentors youth in his community and enjoys practicing martial arts. One day while walking home from school, he was at the wrong place at the wrong time and was involved in a tragic incident. As a result, Danny got caught up in the justice system through no fault of his own. Part of his court mandate was going to therapy, which he got at our Residential Treatment Facility and Cohen Family Wellness Center. Now he pays it forward by serving as an advocate for himself and other young people. Danny was a featured speaker at The Child Center of NY’s 70th anniversary gala. Below are his prepared remarks. You also can watch the video above to hear him tell his story at the gala.

Hello, everyone. Tonight, I am here as an advocate. The Child Center invests in young people and their families, and they supported me when I needed it. The Child Center provided me with a great outlet. I did therapy for two years with a counselor who really helped me. I have experienced several challenges and I wouldn’t be where I am today without that support. I will share my story to show you that when you invest in young people, you help them live healthy, fulfilling lives. Young people can be positive influences on other young people and be change agents in their communities. I am living proof of that. I have a much longer story to tell, but I will make it brief for you.  

 I have a brother who struggles with mental disorder and it made my home life very difficult. He’s been in psychiatric facilities since he was little, and he missed out on his childhood. He is impulsive and has violent tendencies, so I was always in survival mode. I pressured myself to protect my baby brother from our older brother. I worried about his safety. My mother is a single mother, and I did everything for my baby brother while she was at work. 

 The situation at home made me depressed and I was having trouble in school. I used to be a good student, but I was skipping classes and it was really out of character. Things were really rocky.  

 When I was sixteen years old, there was an incident where I was stabbed while walking home and it was a case of mistaken identity. I study martial arts and I defended myself. Unfortunately, the other person ended up partially paralyzed. And because both of our fingerprints were on the knife, we were both charged with attempted murder. This incident occurred at the height of the pandemic. And because of COVID regulations, my case moved slowly, the court date was delayed, and I was held in a detention center for over 8 months.  

 My family usually doesn’t show their emotions. But the day I was sentenced, I saw my family express their emotions for the first time and cry. I felt horrible.  

 Luckily, the house across the street had surveillance cameras and video was able to show everything that happened. My innocence was proven. The court expunged the case.  

 But the judge determined that because of the injuries inflicted on the other person were so severe, I used excessive force. She recommended that as part of my probation, I go to the Child Center’s Residential Treatment Facility, which also houses justice-involved youth. Part of the court mandate was that I go to therapy.  

 Therapy was a lifeline for me. After that whole experience, I have made big changes in my life. I made an effort to stay away from negative influences. I learned who I could trust and lost a lot of friends in the process. I moved out of the city and dedicated myself to becoming better. It’s gotten better. Through therapy, I’ve explored parts of myself I didn’t even know I had. I used to live in the past and I lost myself. I’ve learned to think ahead now.  

 I’m studying to get my real estate license and am an assistant manager at a retail store located near a middle school. The kids I see every day who come into my store, I can relate to them, I give them advice. Mentoring comes naturally to me. I was also a martial arts instructor. I used to visit schools and teach kids self-defense. I enjoyed this very much and plan to continue mentoring kids in the future. 

 I also visit my little brother and take him out, do fun things together because he should enjoy a normal childhood. My therapist taught me that it’s not about the time, it’s about the quality of the time you spend with someone. My little brother is six years old now, and he still calls me “Dad’ to this day because he sees me as a Dad. I’ve been a consistent – and the only – father figure in his life.  

 The Child Center showed me how to cope, distract myself from negative thoughts and identify what is going on. I can pursue a more normal life now. My coping skills, being able to identify problems, have helped me. Through my mental health counseling, I look at everything now with a different lens. When I look at friends, I ask, what baggage do I carry, what baggage do they carry? How can we help each other?  

 All the things I’ve learned at The Child Center enable me to pursue my dreams. I can work on my goals, be there for my family and have the tools to overcome challenges.  

 Like I said in the beginning, I am here as an advocate to tell my story and shed light on what’s happening with our youth. I am here as a testament. Our work here as a community is imperative to youth, especially those who’ve been given a bad hand, through no fault of their own. This is the way to lift each other up and build a brighter future, together. Thank you. 

Team Spotlight: Abraham Santana, MSW, on Creating a Safe Space for LGBTQ+ Youth

Child Center of NY Social Worker Abraham Santana works with LGBTQ+ youth at the Cohen Family Wellness Center in Woodside, Queens

Abraham, a social worker at The Child Center of NY

The Child Center began in 1953 as a single children’s counseling center, based on ideas that were ahead of their time: that children could need mental health services; that serving whole families is a critical component of serving children; and that serving the larger community is at the crux of it all. Seventy years later, we remain as committed as ever to serving the communities—geographic and social—that need us.

Right now, the LGBTQ+ community needs us. Continue reading

Jonathan’s Story

Below is a speech that Jonathan delivered during the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the Cohen Family Wellness Center. You can listen to additional thoughts that Jonathan shared during an interview with amNY, above. Credit: amNY, Kyle Sweeting, and Jason Schwartz.

Hello everyone, my name is Jonathan, and I have been involved with The Child Center for about three years.

To begin my journey, I started with Zoom calls due to the pandemic and restrictions placed by COVID-19. The resources provided by The Child Center helped with resolving many of the issues I was suffering from and helped me overcome major challenges that were tied to my anxiety.

It took me a while to warm up to my therapist due to the unusual circumstances, but when I became comfortable, that’s when my journey decided to pick up speed.

When I went to the clinic for the first time, I was tense and overwhelmed. Due to the country opening up and returning from a remote environment to an in-person environment, I was on edge and all over the place. I was worried that I would lose all the progress I had made during the Zoom sessions. But my therapist helped me ease my worries and helped me with my transition to this new life.

At the time, I was scared of everything happening around me, afraid of change, and intimidated by the smallest challenges that life presented. Although these problems never seem to cease, the ways to manage these stressors were some skills that I would eventually pick up in my therapy sessions.

Jonathan with Amazin' Mets representatives at the Cohen Family Wellness Center in Woodside, Queens

Jonathan (second from left) at the grand opening of the Cohen Family Wellness Center. Learn more: childcenterny.org/photo-of-the-month-cohen-family-wellness-center/

The [Cohen] Family Wellness Center created the resources necessary for my improvement. I felt like I had no cure, and although it seemed like that at the time, I would later be proven wrong.

I learned that I was not the only person to have these uncomfortable symptoms. I was not the only person to live this type of way. I was not alone in this struggle.

This sense of belonging would bring me great comfort, allowing optimism back into my life once again. This place helped me grow, helped me change into someone that I am proud to be.

I would have never imagined the progress I would have made; it still amazes me today.

I would like to happily share that due to the progress I made at this place, I was able to accomplish some achievements that I could have never possibly imagined. This would include my role as valedictorian for my class of 2023, and being a Macaulay Scholar attending Queens College in the fall, majoring in psychology to pursue a passion of being a therapist or clinical psychologist. This passion was inspired by my time at The Child Center.

To end things off, I would like to thank my therapist, Abraham, and my psychiatrist, Dr. Yang, along with my parents and siblings who supported me through this journey. I do not know what type of person I would be without them.

Thank you.

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