Building More Than Castles
The first time WIN therapist Melissa visited Ariel’s home, he met her at the door, grabbed her hand and dragged her to his room, eager to interact. He was 5 years old and enthusiastically pointed to his blocks and then pulled out a drawer with his favorite book inside. Ariel hardly spoke a word even though he was clearly very excited. When Melissa asked him, “How was school today?” he answered, “Shark… TV… blood, get bit!” He didn’t make eye contact or wait for Melissa to respond.
Ariel’s difficulties interacting with people made his days in kindergarten lonely and frustrating. His teachers worried that he had no friends but they understood why… Ariel’s inability to pick up on his peers’ social cues made making friends difficult.
He would chase kids around the playground, with his arms outstretched and fingers wriggling, attempting to interact, but in ways that often frightened other children. And, while his peers learned and played in groups, Ariel also often sat alone on the kindergarten rug, facing the back wall.
Ariel’s social delays isolated him at home too; he and his mother, Lana, were caught in a seemingly endless cycle of misinterpretations that resulted in anger and resentment for both of them. Ariel longed for connection and acceptance, and Lana didn’t know how to give it. As a child she had spent very little time with her parents and had never played with them or felt close to them. Melissa helped Lana understand that her anger, eye rolling, and yelling, distanced Ariel and that neither his aggression nor his willfulness were disrespectful, but rather a reflection of his frustration, confusion, and inability to interact easily with people. Melissa talked with Lana about Ariel’s need to feel loved and his limited ways of expressing this. Lana slowly began following Melissa’s lead, sitting on the floor beside Ariel and starting to build. He built his house, and she built hers. This was a start…
Damariz, a WIN Community Resource Specialist, walked Lana through the IEP school process and got Ariel supports at school. He liked the small peer talking groups that the school invited him to join. There he practiced interacting with other students and making friends. Slowly, school became a welcoming place, where Ariel experienced teachers who paid attention to him and other children who wanted to make friends with him.
After more than a year of working together, Melissa watched something phenomenal happen… as Lana and Ariel played blocks, Ariel began describing what he was building, showing Lana that he had put a mama doll in his castle, had made a garden for her, and that he had built a road, connecting his castle to her house. Ariel was building much more than a castle, he was building connection.
Arlo Jumps Ahead: A Familiar Story
What does the future look like for a kid who is already struggling in preschool? WIN helps families address the roots of behavior and learning problems so everyone can recover and thrive. Here’s Arlo’s story: It was too much. After injuring her back at work, Thalia was no longer waitressing. She was taking care of three kids full-time, and grieving the death of her mother. The rest of her family lived thousands of miles away, and her husband, Luis, had grown distant. Between Luis’ time-consuming job, late nights, and long, secretive phone calls, he had no time for her.
After a lifetime of depression, she felt more alone, ashamed, and hopeless than ever. At this point, even changing diapers for their newborn was painful and difficult.
Day by day, Thalia was losing the energy to get out of bed, much less clean or spend time with her older kids, Ava and Arlo. At four, Arlo was agitated all day and wouldn’t sleep at night. He constantly jumped on the couch, angrily threw chairs and large toys, and had begun hurting his baby sister: pinching and slapping her when Thalia’s head was turned.
Arlo’s preschool teacher was growing increasingly frustrated too. She’d spoken to Thalia several times about his increasingly violent outbursts scaring the other kids and putting them all in danger.
At home, Thalia and Luis often gave in to Arlo’s demands to prevent tantrums, and resorted to spankings, yelling, and other tactics their own parents used when they were kids—but things were getting worse. They both felt helpless, and like his teacher, suspected Arlo had ADHD.
Then Thalia began in-home child-parent therapy and in-home individual therapy with WIN. Melissa worked with the family to address the root of Arlo’s behavior. When Melissa visited Arlo at school, she noticed he was aggressive and angry, but active play helped. Yet, the school was cramped and didn’t have space for outside play.
At home, Thalia soon saw that Arlo’s behavior was strongly correlated with tension in the house and that he was competing with his little sister for her limited attention. Melissa and Thalia worked on activities that were safe for Thalia’s back, but would show Arlo she loved him. Melissa also worked with Thalia to bring light to the roots of her depression: a lifetime of poverty and parents who were dealing with their own depression, addiction, and violent relationship.
Before and during therapy, WIN’s case manager, Magaly helped the family find safe housing and a better preschool for Arlo, while bringing clothing, diapers, and sensory stimulation toys for both kids.
The family invested in an outdoor trampoline, which helped Arlo release excess energy—and he finally began to sleep at night. Thalia noticed therapy was transforming their lives: at first, Arlo could only engage for five minutes, and Luis—who didn’t believe in therapy—was often out or watching TV. Now Arlo looked forward to seeing Melissa at their door eagerly each week, and as Luis saw his son transform, he joined as well—even jumping on the trampoline with him.
As Arlo transformed, so did his parents: Thalia began to emerge from depression, and she and Luis began to grow together, attending church, and taking the family out of their apartment and into the city.
Today, Arlo shows no symptoms of ADHD, and Arlo’s teacher compliments him on his focus and ability to make friends. Arlo’s future looks bright. He entered kindergarten at grade-level and Thalia and Luis know that they have the key to happiness and health for their whole family— it’s a good feeling.
A Healthier Bond
Long before her son arrived, Rosa was anxious. Growing up with a father who was an addict, she’d taken on the role of parent to her younger brothers and sisters from the age of eight, and she still felt as though she was responsible for everyone. Her siblings had long given up on their abusive father, but Rosa persisted, feeling that if she just kept pushing, she could make everything right one day. That yearning had left her exhausted and emotionally drained.
Her anxiety spiked as soon as Daniel was born: she found herself unable to put him down for fear he would choke or die in any number of ways. Night and day, she refused to leave his side—and yet she also found herself comparing him to his robust, precocious older cousin. Was he hitting his developmental marks, or was there something deeply wrong with him?
The anxiety and stress were unbearable, complicated by the fact that Daniel had become so used to being held, whenever she put him down, he would tantrum uncontrollably. Rosa could only soothe him by breastfeeding, and she began to lose weight rapidly. Concerned, her home visitor from Venice Family Clinic helped connect Rosa with WIN.
Although Rosa was relieved that her WIN Community Resource Specialist (CRS) would come to her home, she felt nervous. She’d never accepted this kind of help before. She felt guilty and embarrassed—but she knew she had to do something: she had to go back to work, or everything she’d worked for would fall apart. Judith, her WIN CRS, immediately connected Rosa with childcare, food pantry support, and an assessment for Daniel.
Kylie, their WIN therapist, helped Rosa begin to manage her fears. Through their work, Rosa and Daniel learned to trust that each would be safe even when apart. As Rosa began to regulate her own anxiety, Daniel was eventually able to handle the transition into daycare and acclimate to being around other kids.
Her fears for Daniel sometimes felt overwhelming, but with each step they took, she felt better. They started playing and reading together—enjoying their time instead of an endless pattern of crying and consoling. As she worked with Judith and Kylie, Rosa started to see herself as powerful, as someone who could make a better life for both of them.
Her worries about her son’s suspected speech delay were relieved: Daniel was perfectly healthy. And she felt ready to explore the roots of her own fears: her childhood of abuse and neglect—from which she was rising to forge a different future for her son.
Today, Rosa and Daniel look like any other mom and toddler—only Rosa is confident that her past won’t be her son’s future: Daniel is thriving.
Love In The Face Of Fear
Josefina and her children rarely leave home anymore. Even when she drops them off at school, and whispers, “I’ll see you at 3:15, mis amores…,” she fears she might not be there to pick them up—that she might never see them again.
She keeps doing the unbearable math: “I’ll take the baby—I’ll leave Ana and Jorge with Tita.” It’s anguishing. She can’t imagine leaving any of them behind—yet she knows she can’t support them in Guatemala. Should she even take the baby? She knows why she left, and how dangerous it still is.
Detentions and deportations, and the well-founded fear accompanying this new reality, are ripping families apart. As parents share stories of raids and checkpoints, it’s having measurable effects on the health, safety, and economic and school success of individuals, families, and our whole community.
How do we know? We work with Josefina and hundreds of young children and parents struggling with the fear and hardship their blended citizenship presents on a daily basis. The effects are real and pernicious: we see it as we work with families—and we see it in our outcomes reports: in a 6-month time frame during the beginning of the ICE raids, even though children’s developmental outcomes are exceptional and child-parent relationships are strong, WIN parental stress scores skyrocketed.
Six months before, 77% of WIN parents showed measurable improvements in total stress as measured by the Parental Stress Index (PSI-4-SF); in the iteration after the raids began, that number dropped to 57%. Parents’ stress affects their babies, toddlers, and older children as well: kids live in fear that they may come home and find no one. They can’t focus in class—they can’t plan for a predictable future.
And Josefina? When she came to WIN, she and her children were suffering from severe anxiety. She had PTSD from a life of brutal domestic violence and political unrest in Guatemala. Her stress level screened at 92 on the (PSI-4- SF); her three young children, born in the US, were already showing signs of insecure attachment because of their mother’s mental health issues. They were anxious, aggressive, and developmentally delayed.
Through WIN’s intensive therapy and comprehensive support for the whole family, Josefina’s PSI scores were dropping significantly, and her children were thriving. She felt strong and ready to end treatment. But weeks before, her PSI scores skyrocketed to 171. She wasn’t alone.
All over the country, therapists, teachers, and faith leaders report increased stress, anxiety—even suicidal ideation— rising in their communities. Parents are no longer reporting domestic abuse or calling the police. Some have stopped going to work or school. Many, like Josefina, avoid libraries, parks, stores—anywhere they can be seen.
What is WIN doing to help? WIN CRSes are finding legal help and supporting families in creating affidavits for care for their children. It’s a peace of mind: with a signed affidavit, parents can plan ahead. If they’re detained, their kids don’t have to live through the trauma of being put in protective custody for lack of predesignated friends or family.
Because families are hesitant to leave their homes, we set aside special evenings where families can gather, play, and eat in safe spaces. Our therapists and case managers support parents in developing new coping strategies, and deepening their relationships as a refuge of love, support, and understanding.
Parents and children are finding new ways of communicating—co-creating positive routines built on mindfulness, playfulness, and experiencing joy. We link families with trusted partners who provide health care, food support, housing, and other basic needs with a ‘warm hand-off’ so that parents can rebuild confidence and a sense of agency as they support themselves and build stability for their kids. And because we provide all of our services in families’ homes, they can focus on healing without distraction.
Truly, Josefina and her family’s future, like that of so many in Los Angeles and across the nation, is uncertain. But there are rays of hope: the family continues to overcome. They are wary, but not stricken.
They’ve used WIN to build their own sense of control and networks of support–and they enjoy it as a place of solace and joy in the face of this crisis.
Even amidst the uncertainty, challenges, and trauma, our families are resilient. They define their futures, and we will be here to help them.