From the perspective of Mr. Bill Wolff, Executive Director of LaSalle School – Albany, NY
The sign in front of our main building on Western Avenue in Albany says LaSalle School: An Agent of Healing, Founded in 1854. The agent of healing descriptor of LaSalle has been around for a long time. No one I know can tell me where it came from, who coined it, or when it first appeared. I recall when we decided on construction of the sign that stands today, there was some discussion about the phrase “agent of healing,” what it meant, and if it was still appropriate or contemporary. To me, it somehow felt right. As an agent, we are an intermediary. We facilitate something or represent something, in this case, healing. It is a lot to suggest kids are healed at LaSalle School, almost mystical or maybe fundamentalist, but we chose to keep “agent of healing” however, and I’m glad we did.
There are six ministries* in the District of Eastern North America (DENA) that make up the Lasallian Association of Youth and Families Services (LAYFS). Sometimes referred to as DENA’s child care agencies, this group of providers, several of which have existed for more than a century, offer an ever evolving array of services. Largely reliant on contracts with state and local governments, these ministries offer education, residential services, counseling and treatment services, vocational training, independent living, family preservation, substance abuse treatment, after school and evening programming, parenting, group home programming and more. The children our LAYFS ministries work with are universally viewed to be at-risk, and many are court adjudicated or delinquent, and have experienced neglect, abuse and all too often, significant childhood trauma. Our childrens’ families struggle with poverty, and live in neighborhoods with crime, insufficient housing, unemployment and poor performing schools.
The Harsh Science and Reality
I read an article recently that noted in the United States, the strongest predictor of being wealthy as an adult, is being born wealthy. And the strongest predictor of living in poverty as an adult, is not surprisingly, being born into poverty. Spend time in our child care agencies, and learn the stories of our clients, and you will see the staggering correlation.
The 2010 census tells us that New York State is home to about three million school aged kids, ages five to eighteen. Specialized schools and agencies like LaSalle School care for about 15,000 kids in total, which represents about one half of one percent of the school age children in New York. It is a rare thing, then, for kids to reach the level of care provided at LaSalle and other LAYFS ministries, but when they do end up at our door, the science is telling us their emotional and mental development has been severely impacted.
According to The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, “extensive research on the biology of stress now shows that healthy development can be derailed by excessive or prolonged activation of stress response systems in the body (especially the brain), with damaging effects on learning, behavior, and health across the lifespan.**”
Our clients, who come to us from some of the harshest realities, most often have lives characterized by toxic stress response, as The Center for the Developing Child describes it.
Toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support**.
Toxic stress, if it comes during the time of critical brain development, can cause that development to actually stagnate, and repeated toxic stress, often associated with trauma, almost assures some form of arrested neurological development.
Changing Trajectory, Reason to Hope
The science also tells us that young brains can recover from delayed development. Just as trauma, especially in the form of toxic stress experienced in homes where there is violence, neglect, and substance abuse can stunt brain development, relief from trauma coupled with treatment, can support recovery. The emerging science is telling us that healing can occur when severely traumatized children are in safe environments and are cared for properly. Our LAYFS ministries have developed sophisticated systems of treatment that respond to trauma, and provide supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults, that allow our clients to feel protected, and focus on the necessary steps to learn coping strategies, develop intellectually, and have an opportunity to heal.
A year ago, in September of 2012, the senior class in the state approved campus school at LaSalle consisted of thirteen kids. In June of 2013, all thirteen received New York State diplomas, and eleven of those were designated as Regents Diplomas. One young man was the first of nine siblings to graduate from high school. I am absolutely certain that a review of the case records for each of these kids, looking back even just a few years, would reveal substantial evidence to doubt the likelihood of graduation. These kids were on a path that was not leading to a diploma, and that trajectory changed in no small part, due to LaSalle School.
What we provide is no silver bullet. No one at LaSalle fixes or cures kids and their families. While I am always sure that LaSalle School and our fellow LAYFS ministries have a significant role in the lives of kids and families, I believe they do the most important work themselves. There should be no question however, that as agents of healing, our LAYFS programs provide environments crafted to support the efforts of the children entrusted to us, which allow the strengths they already possess to become more of a positive, determining factor in their lives. The dangerous and downward spiraling curve their life was likely on, is bent in a favorable direction.
More than anything, our LAYFS ministries give kids a chance for a better life, much like John Baptist de La Salle, and the first Brothers gave to the poor of France over three hundred years ago. De la Salle recognized that young lives, no matter how troubled and off-course, were worth an investment. He knew that children born into difficult circumstances did not deserve a life without an opportunity to live in safety, be nurtured, recover, learn to achieve and succeed.
I believe you now know why I am pleased that we did not try to “update” the language on the sign out front of the main building. We truly have been, and will continue to be “An Agent of Healing.”
*Lasallian Association of Youth and Family Service ministries include:
- La Salle School – Albany, NY
- Martin De Porres Group Homes – Springfield Gardens, NY
- Martin De Porres Schools – Elmont, NY
- Ocean Tides School – Narragansett, RI
- St. Gabriel’s System – Philadelphia, PA
- Tides Family Services – West Warwick, RI
**From the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University
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