Youth Development and Wellness (YDW) Team’s Impact on Mental Health

LSSNCA created its Youth Development and Wellness (YDW) program in the 1990s to respond to the needs of children, youth, and families impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. LSSNCA was the first in the area to offer Youth Haven, a camp to support children impacted by HIV/AIDS, and which served 40 youth through its Kids Camp in summer 2022. Since its inception, YDW’s focus has been fostering the well-being of young people dealing with societal stressors.

YDW provides evidenced-based health and wellness educational programs to youth who are living and have experienced adverse childhood experiences. The programs are hosted in middle and high school settings, as well as at annual retreats (Youth Haven and Be Well).

Our program participants from Southeast D.C. have particularly challenging environmental stressors, to include exposure to community violence. One of the youth attending our programs was a victim of gun violence this past year, making YDW’s focus on safety planning and building resilience imperative. A key component of building resilience in teenagers is developing a relationship with a trusted adult.

“Once they trust you, they open up more. The impact will only happen if they trust,” Pamula Twyman, a YDW educator explains. Although it is part of the job, gaining that trust is not easy. Being from Southeast D.C. herself, Pamula finds that relatability ushers the process of trust. Peer pressure is another big issue. Many of the students want to fit in and in Southeast, there’s a code for fitting in.

Understanding that, YDW instructors create an inclusive environment when they walk into the classroom. “When we enter the classroom initially, we open up with the Assumptions Game,” said Pamula. The assumptions game allows the students to make assumptions about their peers and their teachers, but they are also permitted to direct those assumptions to their YDW instructors and not be judged for it. The facilitators engage the program participants in unpacking and debunking the assumptions, challenging stereotypes, and creating deeper and more authentic connections. It creates a safe space for youth to be as open and to question assumptions.

Currently, the YDW program is in two schools and teaches six sessions. The program offers two curriculums – Love Notes for high schoolers and Relationship Smarts for middle schoolers. The Love Notes program teaches 14–19-year-olds skills for building healthy interpersonal relationships, as well as sexual health and violence intervention. LSSNCA’s programs are year-round, and all our programs are free and/or grant funded.

One of the biggest challenges YDW instructors identify in the classroom is the youth not knowing what to do or where to go about their situation. “I’m from the area,” Pamula continues. “It’s the same challenges we faced when I was their age,” and that’s why she and other YDW instructors are proud to be reliable resources for youth in need, to include referring youth to external resources in their community for ongoing needs.

Community resources often include recommendations for ongoing counseling. “We recommend therapy one-hundred percent,” Pamula emphatically attests. “Kids want therapy. The more we talk about it and the more it becomes common and normal, the more they are drawn to it.”  Still, there is an issue of accessibility. Therapy can be expensive, and low and pro bono mental health resources can be scarce. Which is more of a reason why YDW mentorship is crucial.

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