After quite a journey we arrived in Baton Rouge on Sunday January 9, 2011. We learned that it is not always warm in the Deep South and that the threat of snow and cold weather is enough to cancel flights from Memphis to Baton Rouge! We were rerouted to New Orleans where some of us briefly saw the C.A.R.E team and wished them luck on their journey mid-January 2011. We arrived safely to Sister Judith Brun’s house in Baton Rouge on Sunday night and were welcomed with warm, open arms and delicious Southern cuisine. We picked up right where we left off from our last trip with Sister Judith. Although there have been many changes, such as the loss of funding and staff at Neighbor’s Keepers (NK), some things remained the same as when we left. It was sad to hear about the decreased hours of operation at Neighbor’s Keepers, (i.e. the termination of federal housing benefits, which resulted in downsizing of case management staff to one and a decrease in presenting mental health need, particularly emergency needs). Yet, a new and very exciting project at a new charter school - Inspire – was well underway. Indeed we were all looking forward to learning more about this endeavor and visiting the new school undertaken by Sister Judith and Toni Bankston, the Clinical Director at NK, along with their colleagues from LSU.
Although there has been a decrease in staffing and services available through NK, it is important to note that there are still very important services being provided. More specifically, group modalities have become the “main feature” along with some existing individual and family therapy sessions. The groups have been in existence now for 2 years, including Mind-Body Skills groups for adults and teens. One of the team members had the opportunity to sit in and serve in some ways as a co-facilitator of the teen group on Monday afternoon, which was a very moving and powerful experience. Despite this team member’s slight hesitancy in joining the group, as any addition to a group can change that group’s cohesiveness, this Red Baton took an active role in the group and helped to teach these teens about the difference between sympathy and empathy, concepts these teens knew very little about. Indeed, it was a very productive day at both NK and Inspire. Some of the team was able to complete some projective drawings, cognitive testing, as well as self-report measures for depression and anxiety with an 8.5 year-old African American girl from Baton Rouge.
Some of the other team members spent the day with another young boy whose family had been displaced from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, and who is the relative of some other individuals we tested on previous trips to NK. It is always a delight to see faces of people we have worked with before and it allows me to reconnect to why it is that we do this work! Lionel and one of the members of the team went on an excursion to Tony’s Seafood in search of boudin for dinner, and boy was it YUMMY! Their excursion did not end there….they then went to visit the new charter school, Inspire, observed some of the students there, and met some of the staff and LSU externs who evaluate students in order to assess their academic and social/emotional needs. Inspire Academy in Baton Rouge is a new charter school that will serve the high-risk children in Baton Rouge (this includes those born and raised in East Baton Rouge as well as those displaced as a result of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita). Sister Judith is the chairman of the board at Inspire.
On Tuesday the team spent time doing more projective drawings and cognitive testing as well as engaging in play and practicing important skills such as “clean up”. These activities were done with two half brothers who were relatives of individuals the group had tested on previous trips. One of the little boys shared with us his Michael Jackson impression, specifically “Thriller” which was entertaining and provided us with insight into some of the strengths and interests of this young boy. Two of the other team members, along with Lionel went to Inspire to observe students as well as to start testing with students at this charter school. Red Batons who spent the day at Inspire conducted parent interviews of the children referred for testing and engaged in projective drawings with two of these children. These team members also observed the children during lunch time (silent lunch) and indoor recess, because it was too cold outside to have outdoor recess (it was approx 45 degrees!).
Throughout the week the Red Batons engaged in nightly hour-long phone consultations with Sam Moncata to review testing results as well as brainstorm future steps for testing these children. I find this to be one of the many highlights of the trip and believe that it greatly enriches the experience. We are all so thankful of faculty like Sam and Lionel Joseph for taking time out of their busy lives to support and teach us in endeavors like this one. I feel truly fortunate to have their support and the support of MSPP.
The entire group spent the day at Inspire on Wednesday. Three of us partook in the Mind Body group co-led by NK staff members, Toni and O’Neal, for 1st graders and then 4th graders while others completed testing that was started the previous day. Later that night the Red Batons were welcomed into Toni’s home for dinner with her and her husband, Toni’s mother, Barbara, our Louisiana supervisor Dr. Ron Boudreaux, as well as students from LSU who we had the pleasure of working with throughout the week at NK and Inspire. This was a great way to learn more about the work the LSU students have been doing as well as to hear their experience of working with this population. One of the students is from New Orleans and she shared her Katrina experience with us which in my opinion made the work we have done over the past 3 years really hit close to home. It was also a pleasure to be able to spend time outside of work with Toni and her family as well as with each other and Dr. Boudreaux who is a licensed psychologist in Louisiana, and thus supervises our work and written testing reports. On the menu for dinner was a delicious home made gumbo as well as grilled veggies, a pork roast, and strawberry shortcake.
Another important thing to note is that the Red Batons spend time each night, not only to consult with Sam and partake in Southern cuisine, but also to debrief and process the experience. This is truly self-care at work and I think we all find it helpful to process and share our experiences with each other, especially since much of the day we spend behind closed doors testing and may feel disconnected from the other team members. Debriefing provides us an opportunity to listen and support each other as well as to plan for the following day. This is helpful since we approach testing from a team aspect; sometimes debriefing can allow us to synthesize information we have gathered during the day not only from a testing standpoint, but also from a systemic perspective. While much of the trip is focused on psychological testing, we are working within the structure of a larger organization, thus processing system issues we may have come across during the day is helpful, especially since consultation is something we as psychologists can offer. This experience is unique in this way because it allows us to see first hand what it is like to work within this system and can allow us to think as psychologists how we can shape our roles as consultants; something I know I am interested in doing in my professional career.
Testing was concluded at both Inspire and NK on Thursday. The quick turn-around of teacher questionnaires that had been handed out earlier in the weak clearly demonstrated the teachers’ desire to help their students and work with our Boston-based group as a team. We were again invited to Sr. Judith’s for dinner, where over pork roast and rice and beans we discussed the future of Inspire and the potential for subsequent charter schools in the Baton Rouge area, considering the success of Inspire.
The Red Batons were invited to meet a psychiatrist on Friday, the last day of our trip. By this point, our testing was complete and we had a brief feedback session with Sister Judith, Toni Bankston, O’Neal, and Nadia Ebanks, another clinical social worker on Toni’s team. The group had the pleasure to meet with Dr. Charlotte Hutton, a psychiatrist who practices in New Orleans and has been working with NK, specifically their adult population. She will now be working with their child and adolescent population as well. It was a pleasure to meet her because not only did she leave a positive impression on the team but we also learned that she spent 15 years training and practicing in Boston; as it turns out she knew one of our team member’s current supervisors! After this meeting the group drove down to NOLA led by Lionel Joseph and spent the afternoon taking in the beauty and culture that is NOLA. We ate delicious oysters and walked through the French Quarter. We then drove briefly through the lower 9th ward and passed over the bridge to view one of the places where the levees broke. We passed the high school and military base featured in Spike Lee’s film When the Levees Broke. It was quite a powerful experience. There was a dissonant mix of empty lots and homes still marked by hurricane devastation, alongside homes that were renovated and updated. Mentally and physically exhausted, we spent our last night in Baton Rouge together as Red Batons, grateful for our experiences and looking forward to heading home.