The Peacemaker Center helping young people through pandemic07/28/2021 10:39AM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
Beginning in March 2020, the essential lifeline valves of millions of teenagers – interpersonal communication between peers and the wide-eyed optimism defined as hopes and dreams – were suddenly and without warning cut off.
For the next 15 months, as the glaring and terrible statistics kept up their ruthless assault and the world struggled to fight an invisible pandemic, bedrooms and family dens became fortresses for young people – impenetrable walls of protection that gave them shelter against the storm, but also hour after hour of loneliness and disconnect.
Suddenly, becoming just another face in a tic-tac-toe diagram of other faces on a laptop screen became the new normal, and so did the growing realization that the time afforded them to be the best versions of themselves was dissolving before their eyes.
“I had a client who numbed out so much during COVID-19,” said Scott Edwards, the director of operations at The Peacemaker Center in Kennett Square. “His parents were riding him. They asked if he had completed his homework, and he began lying to them, telling them that he had.
“He told me that he would sit there for six hours in front of his computer screen and then shut it all down and do nothing for the remainder of the night. He wasn’t alone. He was a member of the new normal when nothing was normal.”
“It was a sense of their not being seen,” said Melanie Wilson, a therapist with The Peacemaker Center. “They began to realize that social media was not giving them what they thought that it did, and not having engagement in person really hurt them.”
The Peacemaker Center, housed in a historic home on South Willow Street in Kennett Square, stands at the heart of a borough whose primary school district extends its tendrils and influence to thousands of homes and hundreds of neighborhoods. As the COVID-19 pandemic began its assault last Spring and tore away at the social structure of local students, The Center’s Kennett Square location became – and remains – a non-judgmental lifeline of communication.
“We approach teens during their developmental years between 14 and 17, and a major part of their task at that time is breaking away from their parents,” said therapist Vicki Shay. “They couldn’t do that online during COVID-19. Students were telling us that they began to feel like a toddler again, because their parents had total control of them, checking on them every 20 minutes, so developmentally, they were stunted in their growth.
“The teenage years are tough enough as it is,” Shay added. “They are all trying to figure out who they are, and then COVID-19 hit, and now there are so many parameters, things that were once normal and suddenly weren’t normal anymore, and then there’s a new normal and that new normal isn’t so normal anymore.”
As one of six locations in The Peacemaker Center network throughout southeastern Pennsylvania, the Kennett Square location – which began in 2009 and moved to South Willow Street in 2017 -- provides individual and group support to families, couples, children and individuals across a variety of relationship and personal issues. During 2020, The Center’s entire team of clinicians provided care to 1,339 clients and more than 11,000 hours of service.
As a non-profit organization, The Center welcomes support from individuals, churches and the community, and in 2020, it provided nearly $70,000 in scholarship support that led to 575 free-of-charge sessions for individuals and families.
The Kennett Square branch partners with the Willowdale Chapel and its outreach programs in providing a wide variety of cognitive behavioral therapy, emotion-focused therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, family systems therapy, play and art therapy and individual and family counseling.
A teenager’s self-protective system is often manifested in the form of an invisible bubble, and while it provides both borders and barriers, it can also amplify and elevate the severity of the journey he or she makes toward maturity. When COVID-19 forced local students to alter their normal education and lives in 2020, several students who sought assistance from The Peacemaker Center expressed fear that they were completely isolated in their emotions.
Wilson said that the crucial first step for sher and her other therapists was to assure their young clients that they were not alone.
“It is the process of ‘normalizing’ what they are feeling,” she said. “Too many times when families finally decided to make a call to us, the young person’s response was that ‘something is wrong with me.’ In reality, one of the first things we tell them is, ‘Oh, no. Everyone has been touched by COVID-19 in some way, and what you are feeling is actually quite normal.’”
“First and foremost, we must meet that person where they are, and try to see and feel things in order to help them navigate what they are feeling,” Shay said. “It is perfectly normal for a young person to struggle with his or her unrest and anger, and The Center provides a place to go where they can simply unload and have someone understand them. Listening is the basis of our work here, and from there, we can begin to tease out what areas of their life need special attention.”
While the mission of The Peacemaker Center is to provide excellence in clinical care within the framework of “God’s truth and guidance,” the level of one’s personal faith does not always dictate the course of care.
“Faith is not a requirement to be here,” Wilson said. “While we feel that faith helps those who believe in their faith – and while it is our moral base -- it’s not for everyone. And yet, it allows us to help live our faith and see it represented in the questions we ask and the empathy we show.
“For the many young people we meet, it comes down to listening, to using the term, ‘Tell me more about that’ in our conversations. Our therapeutic approach is to build relationships, in order to have young people know that they feel safe and that they know that they matter.”
If there is a universal approach to working with young people at The Peacemaker Center, it is best defined as “Meeting them where they are at.”
“It’s about empathy and co-navigating,” Shay said. “They’re in the ship, and we’re just helping them push it down the stream. We find out where they are, what their issue is, where their concerns are, where they want to go and how we can get them there.
“Some people want to just be fixed, but we’re not miracle workers. This is a mutual effort toward healing, and it requires them to open up and trust in order to allow us to help them.
The Peacemaker Center has locations in Audubon, Coatesville, Downingtown, Fort Washington, West Chester and Kennett Square, located at 202 South Willow Street. To learn more about The Peacemaker Center, visit www.thepeacemakercenter.org or call its main office in Downingtown at 610-269-2661.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].