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The Boston Youth Sanctuary: A Safe Space in the Midst of the Storm

By David Boegaard

Dorchester's Boston Youth Sanctuary was built with the compassion of people toward children who are struggling through trying times. BYS works to take children from difficult circumstances and provide a supportive community and valuable resources so that those children can flourish. Childhood traumas affect each kid in a different way, but BYS is working to help those with trauma express their feelings and heal in a healthy way. Executive Director Jana Karp sets out the basic aim: "BYS's daily afterschool services are designed to meet the specific needs of low-income youth survivors of trauma."

The approach BYS takes is to create a space where kids can reflect, recover, and develop skills to deal with the difficulties that surround them. These programs bring together a wide variety of experts and kind souls, suggests Karp. "BYS's interdisciplinary team includes licensed child clinicians, case managers, art-expressive therapists, therapist/yoga instructor, certified gymnastics and dance instructors, milieu support, experienced mental health consultants, and 7D licensed school van-drivers who transport youth to and from BYS programming."

Of foremost importance is that the Boston Youth Sanctuary be an actual sanctuary from the troubles outside. "BYS strives to be for youth survivors of trauma a sanctuary in space and time," emphasizes Karp. Only within such a safe space can young people feel comfortable enough to let down their guard and begin the process of healing.

A safe space isn't really safe if children can't trust the people inside. So BYS has worked hard at developing networks of trust and respect within its walls. Rather than letting kids feel like they're always falling, with no one there to catch them, BYS "invites youth with histories of neglect, abuse, and tragedy to be held in the meshes of a network of supportive teachers, mentors, advocates, and friends." BYS hopes that the lessons children learn at BYS - and the relationships kids develop there - will spill outside to affect the way the interact and react to the world outside.

BYS recognizes that it's not enough to simply show kids that they're respected and give them examples of reliable adults. It's also necessary to help the kids learn skills that they can take outside and use to find their own center, when they're on their own. In addition to individual therapy, BYS kids participate in everything from trauma-informed yoga classes to cooking and gardening groups, a Girls/Boys empowerment group, hip hop dance and gymnastics classes, and an expressive art therapy group.

Everything that BYS does is dependent on the larger community of Dorchester. That's because "Dorchester's historic past as an ethnically diverse neighborhood and its urgent present as Boston's largest and most populous neighborhood are for BYS vital sparks of inspiration," says Karp. This community background provides the energy that makes BYS's work possible.

Few things are more sorrowful than a child hurt by forces beyond their control. Too often, the hurt that children suffer grows to become hurt that the children, now grown, inflict. BYS has taken an integrated approach to breaking the cycles of trauma that Karp tells us places equal emphasis on mentoring, social interaction, family services, therapy, arts, and skill-building enrichment groups.

And a quick look at the children who have worked through BYS shows that their program has much success. "Such an integrative approach to therapeutic services ensures that youth with complex trauma histories graduate BYS prepared and empowered to meet the full array of challenges that arise in their daily lives, with competence and resilience." Everyone can use a little more hope and care. Here's to the people spending their lives making sure everyone gets a share.

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