By Lauren DelGandio, Seth Eisenberg, Amanda Falciglia, Rachel Schindler
Their eyes still sparkle with the innocence of youth; their eager smiles and endearing manners invite understanding and empathy. For many of these children, behind their eyes, smiles and natural charm are traumatic images, memories, and anxieties that rob them daily of the carefree joys of childhood. These children do not live in Haiti or anywhere else that is the focus of global campaigns for urgent public support, rescue and contribution. They live in Miami-Dade’s Liberty City, minutes from Florida’s southern capitals of relative wealth, abundance, and extravagance.
Over the past month, a team of instructors and research staff from PAIRS Foundation had the privilege of working with the fourth and fifth graders of Liberty City Elementary School, sharing practical skills and strategies for better understanding themselves and others, deepening empathy, expressing emotions, resolving differences and conflicts, and caring for the relationships they cherish.
Even in the worst of times, most residents of Miami-Dade and nearby Monroe, Broward, and Palm Beach counties enjoy resources and opportunities unimaginable for the courageous children of Liberty City. In Liberty City, America’s promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is challenged daily by crime, violence, drugs, abuse, neglect, and homes void of the most basic human and material resources our children count on to build a foundation for dreams come true.
Following our Wednesday sessions with the children in the school’s media center, we spent evenings sharing expanded exercises from the PAIRS Essentials curriculum with faculty and staff who invest so much of their daily lives teaching, counseling and mentoring these youngsters. On Saturdays, we taught the curriculum to many of the children’s parents, grandparents, and adult guardians.
The story of Liberty City is likely similar to that of other highly distressed urban neighborhoods closeted within and on the outskirts of our nation’s major metropolitan areas. From Miami to Atlanta, New Orleans, Washington, DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and elsewhere, millions of America’s youngsters are leaping from infancy to adolescence and adulthood with fleeting moments, at best, of childhood experiences that are fundamental to healthy human development.
From our first interactions, these children enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to be heard and to listen with their hearts to the human experiences of their classmates. Many found the courage to stand before their peers to share their deepest fears and concerns; others spoke quietly to instructors or privately sketched out their feelings in colors and text on worksheets.
They commonly shared longing for absent parents, fears of being shot, stabbed, raped and abused, but also of joys for simple pleasures, such as a new pair of shoes, someone who cares about or believes in them, a chance to celebrate Christmas, the confidence of “becoming someone,” gratitude for friendships, and consistently, their appreciation for being truly heard.
Our future as a nation is inextricably linked to how we respond today to the urgent challenges of America’s Liberty City children. Whether or not these boys and girls grow up to become a danger to themselves and others, incarcerated, addicted, forever dependent on welfare and public support, or productive citizens able to meaningfully, passionately and competently pursue their potential and the promise of America is in our hands as much as their own.
Beyond the work of dedicated teachers, empowering children and their parents with skills to speak, listen, and be heard are critical building blocks for their future and ours. Many of them have witnessed challenges and misfortunes beyond their understanding, creating worlds within them in which the horrors of violence, death and abuse may become their expectations of life rather than the tragic exceptions.
Our hope is to continue working with the children of Liberty City by training exemplary students from neighboring high schools to regularly spend time with these youngsters, reinforcing relationship building skills, mentoring and coaching, helping them discover the miracles of each of their lives, and more capably pursue their enormous potential and the promise of America.
PAIRS Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is one of the nation’s oldest and leading providers of relationship skills training. In 2006, the organization received a multi-year federal grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, to provide marriage education and relationship skills training to adults and high school students in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, and to conduct research. Services to the parents of the Liberty City Elementary School children were made possible by this grant and the support of Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Learn more at www.pairs.com.
Sixteen teachers, administrators, and staff members of Liberty City Elementary School completed the nine-hour PAIRS Essentials training. In follow-up evaluations, 100% said they would recommend PAIRS, 94% said they wanted to participate in additional PAIRS classes, and 100% rated the instructors as “Excellent,” the highest level.
Comments in their evaluations included:
- “The information presented in PAIRS will help me to become a better communicator in my personal and professional life.”
- “I feel the information I have learned will better my relationship with my husband and my family.”
- “PAIRS will assist me in being a better communicator with my students in the classroom, with my children and my spouse.”
- “The information provided was most enlightening and will be quite useful in the classroom!”
- “PAIRS has enabled me think more about what I hope to achieve when I have a complaint while considering the other persons point of view.”
- “I feel PAIRS has given me the tools to recognize problem areas and to stop repeating the cycle.”
- “The information and skills provided will help me build better relationships with my loved ones, colleagues, and everyone I meet.”
- “The program really allows a person to take a step back and look at themselves and how they can better their relationships.”
- “PAIRS has given me tools to use with my students and colleges at work, and in my personal life and relationships.”
- “I really enjoyed learning how to be an effective communicator, listener, as well as how to appreciate and love others for their differences and uniqueness.”
- “I thank you for what you are doing with PAIRS; more people need to know about you guys!”
- “The information and skills will empower me by enabling me to effectively communicate my wants and needs to others.”