New Center Will Help East St. Louis Families Heal From The Emotional Trauma Of Violence
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
EAST ST. LOUIS — Three days before Thanksgiving, an 8-year-old boy was accidentally shot in the stomach by his younger brother. In July, a 4-year-old boy died from child abuse. In June, a 14-year-old boy died after he was shot minutes away from his home.
Deadly violence is part of reality for children in this city, but East St. Louis District 189 is working to ensure that students and families have the opportunity to heal from the trauma.
The school district is expanding its trauma counseling services to evenings and weekends by creating the Wraparound Wellness Center.
During the school day, the district currently offers emotional support to students and parents through peer and professional counseling, weekly parental check-ins and a 24/7 text helpline. With the new Wraparound Wellness Center, those options will be available outside of school hours and will feature more direct engagement with students’ families and communities.
Healing the community
The center will be housed in the district’s Family and Community Engagement Center at 401 Katherine Dunham Place in East St. Louis.
The Wraparound Wellness Center’s goal is to heal the community, but it starts with the youth, says Dr. Tiffany Gholson, director of District 189’s parent and student support services.
“In 2018-2019, we lost five or six students to gun violence,” Gholson said. “In 2019-2020, we lost four middle schoolers due to gun violence. What we realized was that, looking at our data, we are not losing students during the day or at school, we’re losing them in the community after school, during the weekends and at night.”
“We definitely want to focus on the youth. We will be targeting the family system, but the youth will be our primary focus knowing that we need to heal the generations starting with those youth…. We’re trying to move our community from surviving to thriving. We want to talk about healing to hope, and that’s actually our message. We’re moving from how do you really heal from trauma and then how do you still have hope.”
Gholson said she is working on the logistics of launching the center, but she hopes to open it before Christmas. She’s planning to hire 10 people to staff it. She has already hired a supervisor, data management specialist and social worker.
State Rep. LaToya Greenwood, D-East St. Louis, presented the idea of the Wraparound Center to the district after learning about a similar service in Peoria.
Peoria Public Schools opened its center in 2018. Derrick Booth, the director of Peoria’s center, said it has served over 5,000 people in the community since its inception.
“It’s actually going very well, especially during this pandemic,” Booth said. “It’s meeting a lot of needs, specifically a lot of basic needs during this season.
“With the Wraparound Center here, it’s basically a one-stop shop that hosts several different agencies that provide social services, basic needs resources (and) therapeutic services. (It’s) just to connect everybody in the community with whatever their needs are.”
Peoria’s center is housed in Trewyen Middle School. The school is in a zip code (61605) that’s among the poorest in Illinois, according to 2017 Census Bureau estimates. East St. Louis zip codes 62201 and 62204 have the state’s highest poverty rates.
Booth said he’s glad that East St. Louis is developing its own center, considering the community faces the same challenges as those in Peoria. He said he met with Greenwood and Gholson about a month ago to give them a tour of the facility.
Greenwood said: “We had additional conversations about the trauma center, and I was immediately interested in how I could have this opportunity or this initiative in East St. Louis to be able to serve the surrounding communities.”
Greenwood secured $800,000 for the district to expand its trauma recovery services through the center.
“The school district is the place where we have the most contact with students and their families and because we know, in our communities, we have just had tremendous traumatic situations for our students and families through violent death and just numerous other things that have impacted our communities more than others,” Greenwood said about choosing to partner with the school district for the initiative.
Greenwood, a member of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, said the new center aligns with the caucus’ pillars for racial equity. In September, the caucus released an agenda for reforms aimed at ending systemic racism in the state. The agenda is based on four pillars of policy: criminal justice reform; violence and police accountability; economic access, equity and opportunity; education and workforce development and health care and human services.
“We know that we need to pour in additional services, resources,” Greenwood said. “Everything is needed for communities that have totally been disinvested for years and years. It shows in some of the crime that we see. It shows in our health disparities that we see. It manifests in all areas of human life, so it absolutely fits into our pillars in that if you wanna look into criminal justice reform, health care, and we know it impacts our education.”
‘They already know that they die in so many ways’
While planning for the center’s opening, Gholson said she constantly thinks about the boy who accidentally shot his brother in their East St. Louis home and what that family might be going through.
“We’re targeting families that have experienced trauma,” Gholson said. “If you saw the news, you know that our last one that stands out to me was the 8-year-old that was shot by his brother. We know that it’s three boys in that house, two were involved directly in the shooting.”
“I know that he caught the bullet in his stomach, so you can just imagine how the brother feels accidentally shooting him and how the other brother feels by just being there,” Gholson said. “We know that our Black boys at this age are already thinking about their life span. They already know that they may die in so many ways these days, and so being able to go to that family and talk about it is important.”
Gholson said the center will include a street response team because of these kinds of traumatic situations. Whenever there’s a crime or a violent occurrence in East St. Louis that involves someone who’s under the age of 21, the team will go to the scene to provide emotional support for families and bystanders. If the kids are students of District 189, then Gholson’s team will provide counseling services to them and their families at the center.
“We will be providing direct support to any family members that are on the scene because obviously, when you’re in the middle of a crisis, some people might be forgotten in the moment,” Gholson said. “You might have younger people looking at a bloody scene where they don’t necessarily need to. You can divert them, you can comfort them, you can support them.
“If there are no family members or close friends that we need to tend to, we will try to talk to the bystanders. We don’t want to normalize dead bodies. We don’t want to look at it as entertainment. We want to talk about the trauma and what this might mean to them and building the rapport.”
Peer support is another service that the center will provide.
During the day, the district already offers peer support to students with its peace warriors, a youth group that uses Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent principles to address students’ trauma. The group will extend its services in the evening with the Wraparound Wellness Center by providing grief counseling and planting flowers at victim memorials.
The district’s peace warriors are two separate groups of students at East St. Louis Senior High School and Wyvetter Younge Alternative Center. Most of the youths have lost family members to gun violence.
Diamond Williams is one of them. When she was in the seventh grade, her sister was murdered. Up until the middle of her sophomore year, Williams attended East Side but was kicked out because of causing fights with other students. She’s currently a senior at Wyvetter Younge.
“When my sister got killed, I ain’t have nobody there for me foreal, so it changed my mindset about a lot of stuff, so I was taking my anger out on everybody because I didn’t know how to control it at that point,” Williams, 17, said.
Williams said being a peace warrior changed her life. Since joining the group, she said her dream of going to college seems more tangible.
“At first, I didn’t have nobody to talk to, but when I joined the peace warriors, I had someone to talk to,” Williams said. “Everything that was built up in me, I was letting it off by having somebody to actually talk to and having somebody to be there for me.”
Williams said she looks forward to recruiting more students in the group as the Wraparound Wellness Center opens. Her favorite part of being a Peace Warrior is being a source of motivation for kids in the area who want to improve their lives.
Gholson hopes the Center can spearhead that change for kids in the community.
“We’re wrapping these families in the evening time, and we’re just putting everything we have into these families with intense love, support, creative outreach and engagement,” Gholson said. “What does that look like, especially for our people?
“Healing for Black folks sometimes is different, especially in the midst of poverty. We have generational poverty and generational trauma. We have stigmas to counseling, so we’re doing it in the way that makes sense, so with our outreach team, we’re doing it where they are, so we’re going to get them. We’re not waiting for them to come to us.”
DeAsia Paige is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.