Unpacking The Backpack: Group Support For Newcomer Youth

When you think of summer vacation, what comes to mind? Swimming pools, summer camps, sleeping in? Not this group of English Language Learners at Truesdell Summer School. Every morning at 8:45 AM, English Language Learner (ELL) students from across the DC Public School system shuffle into Truesdell Education Campus in Northwest DC to participate in the Summer Academic Program, a program specifically designed to help ELL students get ready for the school year to come. These students came to the US anywhere from three years ago to three weeks ago. And each of them has a story.

This summer, Mary's Center School Based Mental Health (SBMH) program staff members Carmelita Naves, Inma Iglesisas, Sharon Perez and I had the privilege of partnering with the Language Acquisition Division (LAD) and Truesdell’s ELL SAP to provide on-site group therapy for 25 young people ages 9-15. By providing services on-site, we remove one of the greatest barriers that low-income families face in receiving health and mental health care: access.

The focus of our program is two-fold: the therapeutic goals focus on skill-building with stress management, relationship-building, emotional expression, and goal setting. However, we often remind our participants that though the immigration and acculturation experience can feel very lonely, that they don't have to face it alone.

On a deeper level, group therapy offers youth a safe space to connect with peers, to get and give support, and to just “be.” By connecting with a peer who was also detained while crossing the US border, who is also trying to make sense of the death of a loved one, who is also struggling to develop a relationship with their parent after a long separation, or who just “gets” how hard it is to deal with the peer pressure that all adolescents face, a young person has an opportunity to feel understood, validated, or simply a little less alone. 

School Based Mental Health Program Team

(Above: The School Based Mental Health Team)

As mental health professionals, we know that we are more likely see positive outcomes when we engage with both youth and their families simultaneously. To achieve this , we facilitated parent workshops focused on supporting their adolescents’ socio-emotional wellbeing. In an experiential exercise, we invited parents to imagine what types of memories, feelings and experiences their child carries with them in their emotional “backpack.”

One parent noted how frustrated her child felt trying to learn English, often feeling inadequate and unworthy. A mother became tearful while recounting the pain of separation from her mother as a teen, something she still carries in her own backpack, and reflected on how this may parallel the experience of her daughter. A father spoke about his son’s resentment toward him for “abandoning” him at a young age to immigrate to the US and work, and wondered if his child will ever forgive him. This comment was met with many empathic, knowing nods from other parents throughout the room. And as so often happens with a room full of parents, each one a parenting expert in their own right, we quickly abandoned our agenda and PowerPoint presentation and instead let parents guide the conversation to match their own experiences.

Immigrating is not easy. Being a teen is not easy. Grieving the separation from one’s home country and caregivers is not easy, nor is reuniting with parents who no matter how many phone calls were made during a period of separation, may still feel like strangers. And when all of these processes are happening simultaneously, it's even harder.

Many of our youth come to us with unthinkable degrees of trauma exposure: abuse, gang violence, homicide, among many others. People often comment: “It must be such hard work. How do you it? Isn’t it exhausting?” And my response is always the same: it is not a burden, it is a privilege. These youth are much more than their trauma stories, and each one carries with them a piece of wisdom, a secret, a mindset, a dream, or an unwavering faith in themselves and their futures that's allowed them to brave scary, unchartered waters.

As part of our intake process, we ask youth about how they cope with stressful situations. One 10 year old boy spoke about feeling inspired by his dream of becoming a lawyer for unaccompanied immigrant children. Another 12 year old girl looked at me and said: “I just count all the things I’m grateful for. As long as I can remember to do that, I know I’ll be okay.”   And as often happens when any therapy group or relationship comes to a close and I too have to say goodbye, I realize that whatever the youth have learned from us, that I’ve learned as much or more through them.

Special thanks to the DCPS Language Access Division and Truesdell Education Campus for sharing our vision of caring for the “whole child,” recognizing that addressing students’ environmental and socioemotional wellbeing is an integral part of academic success.


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Rachel Osborn, Mental Health Therapist at Mary's CenterAbout Rachel Osborn

Rachel Osborn, LICSW, MSW is a Mental Health Therapist who specializes in both child and adolescent mental health, along with school mental health.  She is also the School-Based Mental Health Clinical Manager, supporting adolescent programming. Through her work at Mary's Center, she strives to combine her love for youth health & wellness, strengthening families, and social change. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a Masters of Social Work from Catholic University of America. Ms. Osborn has lived and worked in Southeast Asia & Costa Rica, doing community development and youth empowerment. In her free time, Ms. Osborn enjoys running, hiking, playing with her dogs, live music and pottery.




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