Despite being very young at the time, Joel Kassel remembers three things from his participation on the KidsXpress program.
The door that miraculously opened upon his approach, inviting him to step into a magical space;
His father taking him to Subway for a meal after each therapy session;
A sense of feeling better following completion of the program.
“My parents had just split up, and I guess I was having trouble coping with the changes in my life. I don’t know who it was who referred me to KidsXpress, or why I felt better. I just know that I looked forward to going to the sessions and feeling a little more settled afterwards”.
Referred by the school counsellor when he was in Year 4, Joel completed the KidsXpress program and went on to finish his schooling in Sydney’s eastern suburbs where he lived with his mum. As the years passed and Joel grew into the dynamic and vibrant 21-year old that he is today, the memory of KidsXpress gradually faded from his mind.
At least, that’s what he believed.
Every now and then, and just like the disjointed images of a surreal dream, flashbacks from his time on the program started to pop up in Joel’s mind. The magical door, the post-session Subway sandwiches and, eventually, another memory, perhaps the most compelling recollection of all … the sight of butcher’s paper and an invitation to write his own lyrics on how he’d like his future to look like, to a song played by our music therapist.
Joel was drawn to the music component of the sessions and, with musical talent running in his family, found that it came to him very naturally. It became his favourite form of self-expression and he would look forward to working with the KidsXpress music therapist each week. And so the seed of his future career path was sewn – only it would be years before he realised.
“My mother is a mediator and I knew that, just like her, I wanted to work in a role that helped people. But I also wanted to combine my passion for music in some way. And then one day, out of the blue, the memories of the music therapists who helped me when I was little came rushing back to me. I called my parents to ask the name of your organisation, but they couldn’t remember. So I googled, ‘Place Near Fox Studios That Helps Kids Through Music’ and sure enough, KidsXpress popped up”.
Currently enrolled in the Diploma of Community Services program as a pathway to Social Work, Joel plans on going on to eventually study Music Therapy, with the ultimate goal of opening his own Music Therapy Practice.
Late last month, on a warm Monday afternoon, Joel sat down at his computer and fired off an email offering to volunteer on our program. The message started off with the words…. “I used to come to KidsXpress as a child and from what I remember, I LOVED it.”
Since opening our doors in 2006, initially at Moore Park and later at our current Macquarie Park home, KidsXpress has supported close to 4,000 children like Joel. Despite the fact that some of the therapists from back then are still with the team today, we’d be lying if we said we remembered each and every child. What is certain, however, is that we will never forget the adults who reach out to us, years after completing the program, to tell us how we helped shape or improve their life trajectory. And while Joel may have forgotten the name of the organisation that helped him during a tough time in his formative years, he never forgot the memory of how the program made him feel, the tools it gave him to cope with his experiences or the desire to become a music therapist that it sparked.
And they’re the memories that matter most.
With an ICSEA ranking of 824 (Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage) – well below the national average – Wood’s Public School* in Sydney’s Mt Druitt region is punching above its weight in providing quality education and learning experiences for some of our city’s most vulnerable children.
Over the past year or so, several Stage 3 male students (Years 5 and 6) were identified as being at an elevated risk of disengaging. Their attendance was erratic, they had several negative interactions with peers and significant behavioural issues including aggression and violence. Their teachers were also reporting a lack of interest in school and low literacy and numeracy levels.
Six of these students were referred to our Expressive Therapy Outreach Program earlier this year. All six students were of Pacific Islander background – a culture that is perpetually overrepresented in every negative indicator associated with schooling such as discipline events, suspensions and performance. (Perso, 2012)
One of the biggest advantages of group therapy is that it is incredibly effective for peer connection and support. Group therapy allows modelling and experimentation of social connections and develops a child’s understanding that they are not alone in their experiences or emotions. This group was no exception. Despite acts of macho bravado dominating the first couple of sessions, it wasn’t long before the boys all agreed that much of this was a result of a perceived need to appear “tough” or “strong” within their family, the classroom or the playground.
What makes our Expressive Therapy Program unique is that the four key creative therapies of art, music, drama and play are used alongside each other, providing children with many ways to express their thoughts and feelings. Participants also have the opportunity to select the modality that best resonates with them. In this group, the boys responded extraordinarily well to drama. This wasn’t surprising as for children impacted by adversity resulting in aggressive behaviours, a theatrical platform offers a safe and secure experience that encourages the full expression of their emotional voice – including feelings of anger – through dramatic activity.
Subsequently, over the course of the program, our three therapists adapted the modality to incorporate themes of graffiti in a dramatic way. The boys embraced this wholly, and it wasn’t long before a pattern of heroes and villains emerged throughout this activity. It became abundantly clear that for all six boys, the heroes and villains each represented characters in their respective world.
Themes of cultural identity and religion also emerged for the duration of the program, with all students mutually agreeing that both were of utmost importance in their lives. Encouraged by our therapists to talk more about these matters, the boys bonded further.
At the last session, the boys were asked to participate in a mural and were provided with various resources to depict how they felt after completing the program. Most of the boys used expressions such as “safe” and “had fun”. Grabbing a thick red marker, one Year 6 boy, scrawled in large letters…. LOVED.
Follow-up evaluations and feedback from the students’ teachers at the end of Term 2 revealed improved social connectedness, enhanced peer relationships and fewer meltdowns in class. One teacher went on to report emerging signs of improved learning outcomes for two of the boys.
Just last week, as our therapists were on their way to meet with a new group of Term 3 participants, one of the boys spotted them and called out … “Hey, remember me? Remember how I used to be naughty? Well, I’m not naughty anymore.” He quickly started to walk away to catch up with his friends, but not before one of our therapists had the chance to reply, “You were never naughty”.
* Name of school has been changed to protect the student’s identity
Q: What are the challenges in raising awareness about child abuse?
People say it’s not in their spaces, they think it’s happening elsewhere and so it not relevant for them – we need to highlight that child abuse can happen anywhere and has far-reaching consequences. For example, workplace attendance is impacted when staff must take leave to deal with past trauma and ongoing responses to that. We need to be cognisant that this is a toxicity that affects all parts of the community. We want to bring a broad representation of the community together and not just preach to the converted – child abuse is around everyone.
Q: Can you talk more about your fundraising campaign?
We have wonderful expertise within our organisation, and we want to be able to go into the community and help others tailor solutions to their workplaces – we need to raise funds to make this happen. At the conference we’ll be talking about our new CAPs for CAPS campaign. It’s also important for us to be transparent and show where every dollar goes. We want fundraising to result in long-term action, not just provide support for a one-off day for child abuse. It’s about fundraising to produce resources and provide ongoing support for people. It’s hard to hear the truth about child abuse, but it is important to raise awareness so that action can be taken.
Q: How do you plan to address child abuse?
Our Safe Children Conference is our main vehicle for advocating change, last year’s conference was a response to the Royal Commission, and that was appropriate for the time. The next step is to address child abuse systemically, at a broad community level – it’s not just about institutions. We want to keep the conversation going with an annual event and look at other aspects and risk factors for child abuse. This includes a focus on technology – we know that online abuse is a significant issue, and we’ll be looking more closely at this as part of the 2019 conference. We also need to reach people in all types of workplaces – child abuse is highly prevalent, and we want to educate organisations about its impact on the workforce and the community. We will also have a focus on childhood domestic violence and its interaction with child abuse. Childhood domestic violence includes children who witness domestic violence, because that can have lasting impacts.
Prevention is another key focus of the conference. This covers many areas, including prevention of adult trauma responses and adult suicides, as well as prevention of abuse in preschool and school-aged children.
The conference will also host the official launch of Childhood Domestic Violence Australia, a national organisation and sister-organisation to the Childhood Domestic Violence Association in the United States.
Overall, we want to ensure that the conference is solutions-focused. We will be highlighting positive ways to help people to move forward and develop practical solutions for dealing with and minimising child abuse. In particular, we want to highlight that survivors of child abuse can become strong and resilient because of it. We want the conference to be about optimism, hope and solutions.
Q: Who typically attends your conference?
At the 2018 conference, the majority of attendees were early childhood educators and government personnel – really the people who are dealing directly with children. That was essential for discussions regarding the Royal Commission findings and we were thrilled with the response. This time we’d like those same groups to attend, as well as a wider representation of the community –corporate leaders, non-government organisations who have broad relationships with the community, leaders from all aspects of government, including justice as well as federal representation. The conference is for anyone who advocates in this space. We’d also love to see some attendees from the technology sector, because it’s a key facet of prevention and education.
Q: What do you hope will be the key take home messages from this year’s conference?
We would like the response to child abuse to be similar to that of domestic violence – we know that domestic violence permeates the entire community, and we want people to understand and think about child abuse the same way – child abuse affects large numbers of people, including adult survivors who have ongoing issues. For example, we know that many maximum security prisoners have lived through some sort of childhood domestic violence, child abuse or both, so the long-term impacts can be significant.
We want people to reflect on their daily life to see how and where they can be part of the change. Awareness is the first step, especially recognising that child abuse has a broad reach; we then want to mobilise people to make changes in the way that happened with domestic violence over the past several years.
A key message is that child abuse is not just an issue that happens in institutions, it affects the whole community and therefore requires a whole-community approach.