Trauma Conference Promotes Mental Wellness for West Side Youth

Dr. Carolyn Vessel stands in front of the headquarters of I Am Able  Photo by: Pascal Sabino

Dr. Carolyn Vessel stands in front of the headquarters of I Am Able

Photo by: Pascal Sabino

alt text By Pascal Sabino, Environmental Health and Wellness Editor, The Real Chi & Industry Pathways 2018 Cohort

Carolyn Vessel grew up poor in the West Side of Chicago as the oldest of five children. She was raised by a single mother, who worked hard to make sure that they had a place to live and food on the table. More than that, Vessel received support from her mother, especially when it came to getting a solid education, and viewed her as a role model.

"I was empowered by a mother who loved me and was equipped enough to know that children need the protective factors in their life," said Vessel who has dedicated her career to giving back to her community and working with the West Side’s youth.

Through I Am Able, a trauma informed care agency based in North Lawndale, Vessel sees how children from this neighborhood are exposed to varying degrees of trauma, but there is a lack of resources to help them understand, cope and develop their emotions.

"It does take a village to raise a child, but it takes a well village,” said Vessel, the CEO of I Am Able. “The village is very sick now because it's full of people who are traumatized and don't have the mechanisms for dealing with their trauma."

“..Based off the work we do, we change our environment. It shaped me for who I am, but I didn't become the environment.”

When Vessel saw that young people in her community didn’t have the same tools for supporting mental health that she had as a child, she decided to create a traveling youth trauma conference to teach children how to deal with different levels of trauma that they might encounter. The conference targets massive traumatic incidents that young people are exposed to due to violence in their neighborhoods, as well as what Vessel describes as the consistent systemic hurdles like poverty and structural racism that young black people experience on the West Side that stack up into major barriers to mental health. The first conference took place Aug. 30 at Dvorak Elementary School followed by an appearance at Legacy Charter School on Sept. 7.

"Mindfulness, breathing, exercise, healthy eating–all of that is going to happen at the conference," Vessel said. “Things that they can do deal with trauma. To prevent it, to intervene in it, and continue to make sure that they're cared for."

In the past, I Am Able conducted a survey with some of North Lawndale’s students, who often described feeling “hopeless” and “helpless” as a direct result from the violence they witnessed happening near their homes in their neighborhood.

Vessel used that information and designed a lineup to include artists from North Lawndale, so her young participants can see that people who look like them, come from the same place as them, and experienced the same things as them can move beyond their present situation.

I Am Able’s youth trauma conferences are the first events in Chicago that are specifically catered for the needs of students in elementary school through eighth grade.

The Dvorak conference opened up with musical performances during the students’ lunch period. Vessel hoped that the saxophone and piano performances from Ronnie G and Walter English, both of whom are musicians from North Lawndale, will show the students how music can be an outlet for maintaining mental wellness.

“They're going to talk to them about how music can be one of the tools that helps you to overcome trauma, and how it can also be an entrepreneurial opportunity,” she said.

Other sessions in the conferences continue this thread of channeling traumatic experiences into creative, productive outlets. At the Dvorak conference, children also participated in fun activities that doubled as tools for managing daily stressors and major traumatic life experiences. They joined a tap dancing session with Mad Rhythms, a healthy eating workshop with Chef Greg’O, and art instruction with local artist Haman Cross.

"It does take a village to raise a child, but it takes a well village.”

The conferences also encourage students to harness the healing power of laughter to maintain their mental health. Comedian Teresa Sykes stopped by Dvorak to show children how she has transformed her pain into positivity, using her past experiences as fuel for her career.

“She tells her story and she uses that tragedy of what happened in her growing up to accentuate the positive. She is still a person and she deserves to be loved, and she makes sure to love on herself,” Vessel said. “You can't get angry at everything. Some stuff you just gotta laugh at and let it roll off of you.”

The Example Setters Youth Poetry group rounds out the list of guest speakers at the youth trauma conferences. As an “example setter,” Ledelle Johnson shared how he has leaned on poetry as a coping mechanism and to help him fully express his emotions, and he often finds himself connecting and relating with the students that he has performed for.  

“I seen somebody get killed in front of me, and I'm OK,” Johnson said. “It desensitizes people when things like that happened. It makes us view things that are not normal as norm.”

With his role in the trauma conference, Johnson looks to be the role model that he wished he had when he was younger. “Everybody on the street, that's pretty much who I idolized [because] I didn't have any male role models to show me something different,” he said.

Overall, Johnson’s hope is that he, along with the other guests as the conference, will serve as a team of role models for the students, and that they–together–can be a positive influence and intervene in the cycle of trauma.

“We're all about uplifting our people,” Johnson said. “We say no to guns, drugs, and things like that. Based off the work we do, we change our environment. It shaped me for who I am, but I didn't become the environment.”