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Interfaith Neighbors Offers Grief Counselor Training for Supporters of Young WTC Victims

By Lydia Gardner

Lisa Smith, associate executive director of Interfaith Neighbors

On September 12 following the World Trade Center attack, Lisa Lorraine Smith and Eileen Lyons decided that they had to do something to help the children victimized by the attack. On September 13, Interfaith Neighbors, the East Harlem-based, youth support organization where Smith is the associate executive director and Lyons is executive director, began providing crisis intervention to approximately 900 young people, individually and in their classrooms.

"Our initial plan was to work directly in the schools with kids who were experiencing negative effects from the World Trade Center tragedy," said Smith. Interfaith Neighbors has provided grief counseling in Yorkville and East Harlem since 1994 through its Children's Bereavement Project. However, the trauma of the attacks called for another form of their services.

"We soon found that the youth were not as visibly upset nor as open and forthcoming about the complexity of their feelings as the adults who were caring for them," she said. "So we decided to provide support and training to their caretakers--the parents and teachers--and work with the after-school agencies who were servicing these kids. That's how we developed a curriculum that was initially funded by New York City's 9/11 Fund."

Smith and Lyons developed a new program, The Peace of Mind Project, to show victims how to help themselves and the children in their care cope with the trauma that followed the WTC attacks. The project creates training workshops where teachers, parents, youth practitioners, social workers and psychologists learn to process their traumatized memories and teach these coping skills to their youth.

"The Peace of Mind Project is a creative response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks," said Smith. "At the heart of The Peace of Mind Project are specific experimental and interactive activities that build a sense of safety, personal strength and intercultural understanding.

"Traumatic memories are stored in the right side of the brain -- the creative and artistic center. Ordinary memories are stored on the left side, the center of executive functioning skills like verbalization and sequential processing," she continued. "When someone has been traumatized, as we all were traumatized by the 9/11 attacks, the left side shuts down and the traumatic memories are stored as sensations, images, emotions and behavioral sequences experienced as flashbacks."

The "Storybook," one of the coping activities, gives participants the chance to take the images, the sensations and the pictures in their minds and put them down on paper. First, they draw pictures expressing how they feel about the trauma, and then they use a single or a few descriptive words to state the feelings and thoughts they pictured in artwork. Next, participants create a narrative journal of their experiences that they finally sign and date.

"This activity moves the sensations and images from pictures to words to telling a story, thus helping people move the traumatic memories from the right to the left side of the brain where they can be recalled at will rather than having them come out as flashbacks," said Smith.

During the first eight weeks of The Peace of Mind Project's inception, Interfaith Neighbors received 75 calls requesting their services from schools and community-based organizations throughout New York City. "We were one of the very first agencies to receive funding from the 9/11 Fund. Since then, the Frueauff Foundation and the McCormack Tribune Foundation have also given funds to the Project," said Smith.

"In the '50s, when Interfaith Neighbors started, we used to run the rooftops to get kids in and keep them off the streets," said Smith. "I think The Peace of Mind Project illustrates that this kind of aggressive outreach still works. For the past five years we have worked with over 2,500 agencies throughout the five boroughs training them in the purposeful use of activity in groups."

As for the administrative side of running projects like Peace of Mind, Smith heard from Lyons that the Business School's Institute for Not-for-Profit Management (INM) Executive Level program could be helpful in developing her capacity to manage strategically and increase her career potential. Lyons completed the intensive management and leadership development program in 1997.

Smith is currently enrolled in that same program and says it has helped her think strategically about The Peace of Mind Project and her work in general at Interfaith Neighbors. She specifically wanted to develop her understanding of strategic management, financial management, and successful methods supporting and developing her Board of Directors.

"I felt I would really benefit from the INM program's discussion of fiscal management led by business professors," she said. "I looked forward to the intellectual challenge and stimulation as well as learning from my peers and finding out how other people at other agencies are managing."

Smith also enjoyed the residential training aspect of the program, which allowed her to concentrate on the new information, although she did miss her three-year-old daughter and the rest of her family. "I'm in the social service field, and it was interesting to think of social services as a business for which you have to plan and think strategically," she said.

"Things don't have to happen to you and your agency. You can be proactive and learn to make them happen. That is a lesson of the 9/11 situation; a lot of people have offered Interfaith Neighbors funding, but we have had to stop and think, do we want this potential funding to be the tail that wags the dog? No, we have to carefully plan what we want to do next. The INM program has helped me realize that I can be a visionary for my organization. I can plan for the future; I don't have to let the future make plans for me," Smith concluded.

The final program in the Institute for Not-for-Profit Management's 2001-2002 series, the Middle Management Program for Youth Service Organizations, will begin on March 21. Applications are currently being accepted and partial scholarships will be awarded to eligible candidates on February 26. Information on this program is available through the Columbia Business School INM web page, or by calling 212-854-6018. Questions may also be e-mailed to inm@columbia.edu. For more information about Interfaith neighbors, visit their website at http://www.ifneighbors.org/.

Published: Feb 26, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002

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