As a third and fourth grade teacher at St. Patrick’s School in Roxbury, Massachusetts, Jana Karp witnessed the everyday impact of trauma on students in the classroom. She loved teaching and working with kids but she was troubled by the number of her students who were impacted by neglect, abuse, homelessness, or parents and siblings lost to violence and how their experiences affected their long-term ability to learn and succeed.
“These kids were so stuck in their emotions that they couldn’t learn, and I was frustrated because I knew my students had experienced traumatic life events but didn’t have the supports they needed to move beyond fight-or-flight mode," says Jana.
Jana got her degree in education from Lesley in 2006 and after several more years teaching, she spent a year as a home-based case worker in Dorchester, Massachusetts working with children with mental health issues and their families. Talking and working with children and parents in their home environment led to an epiphany: “We needed to start thinking of the parents as experts on their own children and asking them directly what kind of help they needed.”
The answers she found were complex but illuminating. Families wanted after-school programs for their kids, emotional and therapeutic support, and help navigating the often complex network of schools, therapists, and case workers.
Jana started thinking about a way to create a “one-stop shop” where kids and their families impacted by trauma could get the help and support they need. She opened the Boston Youth Sanctuary in 2011. The goal? To offer after-school care, clinical support, case management, educational advocacy, and creative therapies to children who have experienced trauma, all in one facility-based center.
The Boston Youth Sanctuary is located in Dorchester, not far from the Ashmont transit hub. The center partners with nine local schools to serve kids ages 6-11 who attend the center five days a week from 3:00 pm until 6:30 pm. “We pick them up from school and drop them off at home afterwards.” During after-school hours, children receive trauma-informed individual and group therapies, get help with homework, and participate in movement, art and athletic programs. There are special empowerment groups geared toward girls and boys, and groups devoted to problem-solving, mindfulness, and more.
On a recent Friday evening, the center feels like a warm, bright oasis, with colorful walls and children’s art everywhere—lining the hallways and filling the orderly art room where students’ work is organized in pizza boxes labeled with their names. In the relaxed “freestyle” time at the end of the day, students sit on the carpeted floor working on art and writing projects; others practice their hula hooping nearby. A basketball game is wrapping up in the gym and staff are cleaning up in the kitchen; students have dinner at the center every night and get cooking classes to learn about nutrition and how to prepare simple, healthy meals. Before leaving for the day, students and staff will gather for “closing circle” where they’ll review their day together and say goodbye.
The core of the staff comes from the communities that the center serves—Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury. “We wanted a staff that reflected the diversity of the kids that we serve,” says Jana.
As part of the “wrap-around” services, each child has a designated therapist and a community-based family liaison to provide continuous, consistent support. The Lesley connections to the center are notable. Jana, a current Lesley University trustee, points out several Lesley grads among the staff and three Lesley students who are interns at the center.
Jana would love to see the Boston Youth Sanctuary model spread as a way of offering expressive therapies and trauma- informed support to children and communities. “I want to make the model accessible for anyone who’s interested,” she says. “I didn’t reinvent the wheel—I just put it all in one place.”