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A Symposium for Hope

This guest blog post was written by Ava Stetson Ward, a 15-year-old sophomore student who volunteered at the 2018 International Neurosequential Model Symposium, held June 12–14, 2018 in Banff, Alberta.

Ava Stetson Ward

The sun is setting over the majestic Canadian Rockies on the last day of the International Neurosequential Model Symposium. The closing ceremony marks the end of three days of schedules packed with meetings and lectures, but, unlike your usual conference, the attendees part with a bittersweet air rather than the subdued relief usually present after completing three days of notes and discourse. Phone numbers are exchanged, meetups are planned, and chatter already bubbles with anticipation for the next symposium to roll around.

“This symposium is meant to inspire and restore all of us working to improve the lives of children and their families,” ChildTrauma Academy Executive Director Jana Rosenfelt said. First occurring in 2014, the biennial International Neurosequential Model Symposium spans numerous disciplines, including mental and public health, neuroscience, and juvenile justice. The fields unite under the umbrella of the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics, a “developmentally sensitive, neurobiology-informed approach to clinical problem solving” according to the ChildTrauma Academy. The three days spent nestled in the majestic peaks of Banff, Alberta, allow professionals from all around the world to play both student and teacher in the interest of leaving better equipped to spread successful practices in their own domains.

One of the finest traits that distinguishes the conference is just how much the delegates enjoy the time they spend at the symposium. “It’s nothing like your ordinary conference,” Rosenfelt comments on the amount of fun that permeates the event. Between seminars, attendees had the opportunity to view the spectacular scenery of the Alberta region, attend a yoga class, or even try their hand at rhythmic drumming. Despite hailing from all corners of the globe (visitors included people from Scandinavia, Australia, and South Africa), the attendees made dynamic connections. Language barriers and cultural differences were no match for their shared passion to better the lives of those affected by trauma.

Not only geographically diverse, the symposium also boasted a wide age range. The 12 NMT Student Ambassadors, ranging in age from 12 to 23, helped direct delegates to their workshops, cleaned conference rooms, and set up various events. Their primary task was to give a spoken introduction of each NMT Luminary Speaker. The job allowed the adolescents to dip their feet into the work of the ChildTrauma Academy. As kin of either operatives or attendees of the event, many already had a budding interest in clinical problem-solving.
“It’s an amazing opportunity,” praised 16-year-old Sheridan Feucht, who has not only been a student ambassador for all three symposiums but has also produced artwork to accompany the event.

The student ambassadors even had the privilege of meeting with Dr. Bruce D. Perry, Senior Fellow of the ChildTrauma Academy and adjunct professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine. Author of the mental health staples The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Born of Love; Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered, the expertise and humor granted by Dr. Perry magnified the event.

A pivotal performance on the final day of the symposium was that of Jimmy Greene. A Grammy award nominee, Greene’s saxophone piece Beautiful Life celebrated his six-year-old daughter Ana Marquez Greene, who was killed on December 14, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the Newtown, Connecticut shooting. Delegates had the opportunity to listen to Greene perform work from his second album, Flowers, another collection honoring his daughter. The artist’s passion and raw emotion produced such an impact that there was not a dry eye in the room.

Greene’s performance is a beacon to the purpose of the conference. Delegates head for the hills of Canada not for desires of self-promotion or the center’s superior buffet (although the latter was certainly a mouthwatering benefit), but rather for the chance to make a change in society. The best minds of mental health unite for three days to navigate pathways in healing trauma and improving psychological function. In a divided world, the third International Neurosequential Model Symposium proved that our differences can only serve as an advantage when the common goal is supporting others.

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Supporting Little Aaron

When Aaron first arrived at Mount Saint Vincent, it was immediately apparent that years of chronic neglect had taken its toll on him. The shy six-year-old tested at the developmental level of an 18-month-old.

Like any toddler that age, he is intensely interested in exploring his environment. He walks around, touching different surfaces, and puts objects he finds into his mouth. The cottage and teaching staff must monitor him closely, gently redirecting him when his attention wanders.

It was a surprise, then, to see Aaron’s eyes light up when he saw the elaborate doll house in the Aspen Club House. He walked directly to the doll house, picked up two dolls, and began playing. He played quietly by himself for 20 minutes. That may not seem remarkable until one considers Aaron’s average attention span. That length of time is typically just 45 seconds.

“If you think about a child who is developmentally two years of age, and he’s trying to get to six, he needs to make up for that lost time,” Recreation Therapist Rob Johnson said. “Aaron is rapidly going through many stages of development here at Mount Saint Vincent. It’s nothing short of amazing to witness.”

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V Is for Volunteer

Like many nonprofits, Mount Saint Vincent relies on volunteers to assist with numerous projects all around the agency. Every year, a small army of more than 1,000 people volunteer their time here. They host barbeques, pull weeds, repair bikes, wrap gifts, rake leaves, play with the children, and much more. We are deeply grateful for the thousands of hours of help they provide.

Among the dozens of amazing people, there are a handful who demonstrate steadfast commitment to Mount Saint Vincent. Week in and week out, year after year, their dedication to serve children in need deserves special recognition.

Every Monday and Tuesday that school is in session, Roger can be found in Room 6. He quietly identifies a student needing attention, and sits alongside that child throughout the day. “Roger’s ability to provide one-on-one time with students is absolutely invaluable,” said Special Education Teacher Myra Marcus. “He also claims to be the world’s best pencil-sharpener.”

juanita-and-judy

Judy and Juanita

Juanita and Judy are the epitome of a tag team, stopping in on Wednesday mornings to assist in the development department. The J’s are up for whatever task is put before them, from organizing the children’s clothing closet to stuffing envelopes to wrapping gifts. “We basically do all the odd jobs that nobody else wants to do,” quipped Judy.

Diana organizes the 2,500 books in the school library and even finds time to update the seasonal selections rack every Wednesday. The school staff appreciates her work in organizing the teacher resource section. “She is one incredible woman,” said Educational Mental Health Worker II Patti Chrisco. “She works so hard and is always kind and helpful to the children and staff.”

Each Thursday evening, Linda and Don help the children in the Grays Peak cottage get ready for bed. They read bedtime stories, give back rubs, and spray “monster repellant” under beds as needed.

John

John

John volunteers nearly every weekday, arriving at 5:30 am to make coffee for the staff. He also helps Sister Roberta with a variety of tasks, including hanging up seasonal decorations around the main administration building for the children and staff to enjoy.

Former resident Ray is a man of many talents, and he loves to volunteer his services here. A master woodworker, Ray has refinished many of the antique stair railings, doors and windows. He also wields a fierce paintbrush.

Leslie

Leslie

Leslie loves to bake, and the children in the cottages are more than happy to consume the treats she creates for them. From brownies and cookies to mouthwatering cakes, every Tuesday and Thursday the smell of homemade baked goods comes wafting out of the kitchen. Yum!

These individuals are just a few of the hundreds of wonderful volunteers who help keep Mount Saint Vincent humming along. Together, the volunteers and Mount Saint Vincent are able to accomplish our common goal: to serve children facing the challenges of trauma, mental illness, abuse and neglect.

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Thank You to Our Wonderful Volunteers!

In honor of National Volunteer Week, we would like to thank the 1,000-plus volunteers who donate their time to Mount Saint Vincent every year.

These wonderful folks perform a host of activities including working with the children, beautifying our grounds, assisting at fundraising events, raising awareness in the community, performing building maintenance, and raising funds. People like Linda Wasserman and Don Krattenmaker, who come every Thursday evening to read bedtime stories to the children. Places like Red Rocks Church, who bring groups of volunteers two or three times a month to do crafts, play basketball and dodge ball, and tuck the children into bed at night. And folks like Scott Nelson, who leads a group that cleans the chapel regularly and decorate before holidays.

We couldn’t do it without you, volunteers, so thank you from the bottom of our hearts!

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7 Signs of Child Abuse and Neglect

Everyone in the community plays a role in the prevention of child abuse and neglect. But often, recognizing the signs can be difficult. It’s more than bruises and broken bones—not all child abuse is as obvious. By learning some of the common signs of child abuse and how you can report it, you can make a huge difference in a child’s life.

Suspected Signs of Child Abuse or Neglect

1. Frequent and unexplained injuries. Children who have experienced physical abuse may have unexplained bruises, welts, or cuts in areas of the body where accidental injuries aren’t likely to happen—like the cheeks, neck, genitals, buttocks, and back. These injuries can appear to have a pattern, like marks from a hand or a belt.

2. Extremes in behavior. Abused or neglected children show severe changes in behavior. They can be extremely compliant or extremely demanding; extremely passive or extremely aggressive. Often, too, they can be excessively withdrawn, anxious, or fearful of doing something wrong.

3. Don’t act their age. Children who have experienced emotional abuse may act inappropriately old for their age (i.e., acting like the parent of younger siblings) or return to early childhood behaviors. These behaviors may include:

Thumb-sucking
Bed-wetting
Fear of the dark
Rocking back and forth
Fear of strangers
Throwing tantrums

4. Changes in eating or sleeping habits. The stress of abuse can cause changes in a child’s eating habits, which may lead to weight loss or gain. Furthermore, if a child is being neglected, they may hoard food, never knowing when they’ll receive their next meal. Abused children may also appear tired or fatigued as a result of frequent nightmares or difficulty falling asleep.

5. Lack of hygiene or personal care. Abused or neglected children may look uncared for. They seem constantly dirty (unbathed, matted and unwashed hair, body odor), wear clothes that are ill-fitting or inappropriate for the weather, or have untreated illnesses or injuries.

6. Afraid of going home. Children who have experienced abuse may come to school early and leave late because of the fear and anxiety they experience around returning to the place where abuse is happening.

7. Inappropriate sexual behaviors. Children who have been sexually abused may show interest in or knowledge about sexual acts that are inappropriate for their age. They may also engage in seductive behavior or use explicit sexual language.

What can you do about child abuse and neglect?

Trust your instincts. If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, call toll free to report at 1-844-CO-4-KIDS (1-844-264-5437). The Colorado Department of Human Services launched a new statewide child abuse and neglect hotline, 1-844-CO-4-KIDS, on January 1, 2015. Designed to provide one, easy-to-remember phone number for individuals to use statewide to report suspected child abuse and neglect, the hotline serves as a direct, immediate and efficient route to Colorado’s 64 counties and two tribal nations, which are responsible for accepting and responding to child abuse and neglect inquiries and reports. All callers will be able to speak with a call-taker 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and all calls are anonymous.

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Relationship-Based Care: The Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics

Positive relationships—they are a strong point of pride for the staff at Mount Saint Vincent. They are also something Kirk Ward, clinical director, was looking to capitalize on when he put Mount Saint Vincent on the path toward using the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT) eight years ago.

“At a certain point in time, I realized we weren’t taking advantage of the biggest strength of our program, which are the relationships we create with the children. So, we began looking towards a more relationship-based model of care,” said Ward.

The Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics combines formal therapy with rich relationships involving trustworthy peers, teachers, and caregivers. Using a brain map that is created after a thorough assessment, NMT matches therapies to a child’s developmental stage and affected brain region.

Using Neuroscience to Inform Care

As a child grows, their brain cells connect, interact, and organize themselves into a tiered system, with the lower regions developing first. The lower parts of the brain—the brainstem and diencephalon—perform the functions that keep the body alive, like breathing, heart rate, and body temperature. The higher parts of the brain develop over a longer period of time (into early adulthood), and are responsible for more complex functions, such as language and abstract thinking. However, the majority of brain organization takes place in the first four years of life.

Children who have experienced chronic trauma develop brains that exist in a constant state of fear. Their stress responses are oversensitive, which helped them adapt to their trauma-filled environments, but also created a negative starting point for their thoughts, feelings, and actions.

“NMT is very intuitive. It really helps you understand why a child is acting a certain way based on their brain development, and it helps create a road map for the types of therapies that will help them heal,” said Ward.

This “road map” is made by reviewing a child’s history to find out the types of trauma, neglect, or stress they were exposed to and at what point in their development they happened.

Rebuilding the Brain from the Bottom Up

Using the map, recommendations can be made on the types of therapies that will help address developmental deficits. While there may be many, the order in which they are targeted is important. Basically, the idea is to start with the problems that happen in the lowest parts of the brain, and work your way up as improvements are seen.

“For example, if you have a child that has experienced a lot of severe developmental trauma in utero, they’re likely going to have symptoms like a variable heart rate, attention difficulties, autonomic regulation problems—brainstem issues that talk therapy won’t impact. Instead, something like music therapy or movement therapy or animal-assisted therapy will engage with those lower parts of the brain and help strengthen them,” Ward said.

dance1

Creating a Positive Environment

Another reason Ward gravitated toward NMT is the fact that many of the interventions used to help children heal are things that don’t necessarily require a therapist to do. Parents, caregivers, teachers, and Mount Saint Vincent staff can all participate in creating an environment for the children that is full of positive, repetitive interventions. Things like “brain breaks” in class, rubbing a yoga ball on a child’s back, chairs in the classrooms that rock—these are all patterned, repetitive, rhythmic activities that impact lower parts of the brain in a constructive way, and anyone can do them.

“NMT is intuitive and non-judgmental. It might be a scary title, but once you get past that, what you’re telling people makes sense,” Ward said. “You don’t need a Ph.D. in psychology to understand why the interventions work. It’s not about shaming anyone or telling them how bad they are—it’s about looking at the situation you have and figuring out a plan to move forward together.”

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Promoting a Strong, Trauma Informed System of Care

By Jim Uhernik, LPC,
Director of Business Development

Last Friday, we had the pleasure of hosting a trauma informed care training at Mount Saint Vincent for a group of 25 Denver CASA volunteers. It was a great opportunity to share with CASA how we use the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT) to facilitate a comprehensive continuum of trauma treatment for children. As I was talking with the CASA volunteers, it made me think about the greater awareness in Colorado of trauma, and especially its effects on children.

For the last six years, I have been in a role that allows me to interact very directly with a diverse group of state and local leaders, advocates, and professionals in behavioral health, education, and child welfare. Now more than ever before, our conversations have centered on trauma informed care. Policies and practices, including the Colorado Title IV-E Waiver, have promoted the value of trauma-informed care, including trauma assessment and treatment that is matched specifically to the age of the child and the complexity of his or her trauma.

At Mount Saint Vincent, we are very excited to actively support efforts to promote a trauma-informed system of care. In addition to providing trauma-informed behavioral health and educational services to children, we have been very active in providing trauma-informed care training to school districts, child welfare agencies, early learning centers, foster care agencies and other organizations. Currently, we are working on an expanded menu of training options which we hope to publish on our website soon. For more information about our trauma informed system of care and the training and consultation Mount Saint Vincent provides, contact Kyle Bixenmann, Senior Workforce Training Specialist, at kbixenmann@msvhome.org.

 

Photo caption: Clinical Director Kirk Ward addresses a group of Denver CASA volunteers in a trauma-informed care training. 

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Golf Tournament Registration is Now Open

Does this wave of warm weather have you itching to get outside and dreaming of summer? Us, too! That’s why registration is now open for the ninth annual Play a Round for Kids Golf Tournament, slated for Friday, June 19, 2015 at The Ridge at Castle Pines North in Castle Rock. All proceeds from this fun event will help Mount Saint Vincent transform the lives of children by healing the hurts of trauma, mental illness, abuse, and neglect.

Your registration will cover the greens fee for 18 holes of golf, golf cart, boxed lunch, and an awards dinner. You can even take part in a raffle for tickets to sporting events, nights out on the town, golf foursomes at area golf courses, and many other prizes.

The tournament kicks off with a 1:30 pm shotgun start. You won’t want to miss it!

Golf Tournament Registration

REGISTER TODAY

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A Day in the Life of Charlie the Therapy Dog

Charlie is a bit of a celebrity. When she walks through the doors on Mondays and Fridays all perky and excited, everyone stops to say hello and give her a scratch behind the ears. But she can’t hang out for long, because she has an important job to do. Charlie is a therapy dog.

Waiting for the day treatment children as they get off the bus.

Waiting for the day treatment children as they get off the bus.

Her mom, Jessica, is the supervising lead clinician and an animal-assisted therapist at Mount Saint Vincent. On the day she adopted her, Jessica was just trying to pick up some groceries at the supermarket when Charlie’s face caught her eye at an adoption fair. Charlie was abandoned in New Mexico and then went to live with a foster family before coming to Colorado to be adopted. Needless to say, Jessica ended up leaving the store with a puppy instead of snacks. At the time, she wasn’t looking for a therapy dog. But after she got to know Charlie, she knew she’d be perfect for the job.

Charlie as a puppy.

Charlie as a puppy.

Charlie’s day at Mount Saint Vincent starts out low key. She likes to say hello to staff and then lay under an office chair for a quick nap before her real job begins. On the days she comes to work, Charlie and Jessica are a team, with Charlie accompanying her to therapy sessions. When a child struggles with attachment, relational, or trust issues, animal-assisted therapy may help the child overcome those challenges. An animal like Charlie, one of our certified therapy dogs, is typically seen by the child as nonjudgemental and nonthreatening. Allowing children who feel anxious and stressed to divulge personal information to Charlie, instead of directly to Jessica, can speed up the recovery process.

“There’s often a lot of parallel between Charlie’s life and theirs, and they often feel much safer talking to a dog than to a human. In some cases, the client will open up to Charlie ten times more than to a therapist,” Jessica said.
Charlie also helps children calm their behavior. Animals intuitively sense when a child is agitated and they will avoid that child. Children quickly learn that they need to calm their bodies, slow down their breathing, and lower their voices before Charlie will let them interact with her.

“With some of the children, we’re focusing on social skills and boundaries. So, if the child leans in to give Charlie a hug and she pulls away, I’ll use Charlie’s behavior to point out how their actions may have made her uncomfortable. It helps make them aware,” said Jessica.

PettingCharlie

Jessica also uses Charlie as an incentive for the children to engage in safe behaviors.

“An example would be if there is a situation happening on the playground, I might tell the staff that if the child can make a safe decision really quickly, Charlie would love to walk them back to where they need to be. And it’s amazing — the kids will immediately stop what they’re doing because they want to see Charlie so badly. It’s really powerful to see,” Jessica said.

After Charlie’s day is done, Jessica typically rewards her by playing fetch in the school after the children have left. Charlie sprints up and down the halls and in and out of the rooms, entertaining staff with her lightning speed and happy face. Then she and Jessica head home where Charlie takes a much deserved nap — her second-favorite thing to do after spending time with the children.

“The children love Charlie. So the motivation that is there to keep themselves accountable for her is quite amazing.”

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Celebrating 132 Years of Caring for Children

132 years ago, Bishop Machebeuf approached Mother Xavier Ross of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth to build an orphanage in Denver. It was the heyday of the gold rush, and people flocked to the gold and silver mines in the Colorado mountains to make their fortunes. The harsh conditions made the camps unsuitable for children, so on a hill in North Denver, Mount Saint Vincent Home for Children was built in 1883. The imposing three-story red brick building included classrooms, offices, a chapel, recreation rooms, and dormitories. The cost of construction was $15,000.

Within a week of its opening, 50 children were in residence. Within a few months, there were nearly 200 children housed. The care of orphaned children continued until 1969, when orphanages were phased out in favor of foster care. As a result, Mount Saint Vincent became a residential treatment center for children suffering from physical or sexual abuse, severe neglect, or mental illness.

In 2012, Mount Saint Vincent was granted the prestigious flagship site designation by The ChildTrauma Academy of Houston, Texas, making it the fourth treatment facility in the world to earn the distinction. In order to earn the designation, the clinical team completed the ChildTrauma Academy’s extensive Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT) Training Certification Program. The NMT model focuses on stimulating brain development to help children overcome the debilitating effects of abuse and neglect.

Whether as an orphanage or a treatment center, more than 18,000 children have passed through Mount Saint Vincent’s doors. The agency remains steadfast in its commitment to care for children.

To take a tour and learn more about the history of Mount Saint Vincent, contact Kay Mcdowell at 303-964-1137 or e-mail kmcdowell@msvhome.org.

 

Photo credit: Denver Public Library

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