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All of us must work to heal traumatized children | Opinion

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All of us must work to heal traumatized children | Opinion

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This article was produced as a project for the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, a program of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism. 

Photo | The Times-Picayune
Sunday, July 8, 2018

Opinion by Melissa Sawyer and Kenneth Polite Jr.

Adolescence is tough. It is hard enough for teenagers who are born into privilege, with all of the resources and supports that they need to actualize their potential. For the multitude of young people who are navigating their journey to adulthood without a lot of support and with the additional challenges of growing up surrounded by perpetual community violence, it is that much tougher.

As the | Times-Picayune series "The Children of Central City" highlighted, there are hundreds of children in our city who are struggling to overcome immense challenges that were caused by no fault of their own - and like it or not, their struggles are all of our problem.  

For 14 years, the Central City-based Youth Empowerment Project(YEP) has provided free-of-charge mentoring, education, employment readiness and enrichment services to children and young adults from across the greater New Orleans region. Many of the young people we reach struggle with the effects of compounded trauma, violence, substance abuse, scarce community-based resources and generational poverty.

YEP and our partner organizations cannot solve the challenges our young people face alone - we need your help, and everyone can do something.

A personal investment: be it time, treasure or talent. We must accept that all of the children of New Orleans are our children, too. We have a shared responsibility to invest in them and to provide them with the support they need to grow into healthy adults. Volunteer -- share your professional or personal talents with local organizations working with underserved youth and young adults. Hire a young person -- provide them with valuable job skills and the opportunity to earn a living. Donate -- give what you can to support organizations that are having an impact on the lives of youth in our city.

Budgets are moral documents. How we choose to spend our money as individuals, corporations or government agencies demonstrates what we truly value. Elected officials are accountable to their constituents, and we need to let them know that our children are our number one priority. Similarly, many corporations contribute to nonprofit causes in the community, and company employees can influence charitable-giving priorities.  

Our education and criminal justice systems must be trauma-informed. The Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies found that children in New Orleans are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder at four times the national average. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services confirms this kind of trauma can lead to behavioral problems, alcohol/drug abuse, anxiety, psychiatric disorders and juvenile delinquency. As such, we owe it to our children to invest in them as early in life as possible, providing the supports and services they need before they are ensnared in the school-to-prison pipeline. Further, we need to build the capacity of quality, comprehensive prevention and intervention programs offered by organizations like YEP that offer youth with mentoring, employment readiness, education and enrichment services during out-of-school time.

As a city, we have the opportunity to collectively take action and counteract the damage that continued exposure to trauma is inflicting upon our children. But we need to care about our children enough to do something about it. And we need to act.

Alternatively, if we continue to ignore the basic and immediate needs of our children, the cycles of violence and poverty that we have grown to accept in New Orleans will continue, and we will all suffer for it.

Melissa Sawyer is co-founder and executive director/CEO of the Youth Empowerment Project, or YEP. Kenneth Polite Jr. is YEP board vice president and former U.S. attorney in New Orleans.

[This story was originally published by | The Times-Picayune.]