Q&A with Dr. Marisol De Jesús-Pérez, Pastoral Counseling Center

Recognizing factors that affect children’s social and emotional development continues to be a priority of The Budd Center and The School Zone. With the growing uncertainty and fear surrounding immigration and deportation as well as an increasing awareness of the many ways racial inequity impacts our students of color, The Budd Center is focusing its 2017-18 Networking & Learning Meetings on equipping partners to address these realities and create a safer community for everyone in West Dallas.

During our first Networking & Learning Meeting of the school year, we invited Dr. Marisol De Jesús-Pérez, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with Pastoral Counseling Center, to discuss how socio-political issues such as immigration and deportation can affect the social, emotional and mental health of children. We also examined mental health disparities based on race and ethnicity.

As a follow-up to her presentation, we talked with De Jesús-Pérez about her career, gaps in social and emotional support of children, and innovative approaches to supporting students from marginalized communities.

When did you experience the calling to serve families and children through therapy and psychological services? Was there someone or something that inspired you to walk this path?

I realize now that all the experiences of my life helped to shape my career decision and my work with children and families. I was born to an undocumented immigrant mother and an alcoholic father. Neither of my parents completed a formal education. Due to my father’s alcoholism, the very little income that he generated was not being invested in our family, resulting in our family living in poverty. During the first five years of my life, I witnessed their intense marital conflict. This situation changed drastically after my parents joined a faith community that offered them holistic support and patiently assisted them in the process of living sober and changing their dysfunctional relational dynamics. My family’s experience with this church opened my eyes to the power of supportive communities. Therefore, I decided very early in my life that I wanted to become an agent of restoration for families at high risk. My calling to become a psychotherapist was reaffirmed when I did missionary work in South America, right after finishing college. I primarily served children living in severe poverty and recovering from abuse, abandonment and war-related trauma. This work helped me realize the importance of providing holistic assistance – medical aid, food and education – to families in need.

Having experienced what it feels like to be paralyzed by helplessness, poverty, shame, and fear allows me to empathize with children and families suffering similar circumstances. I know the power of supportive communities and corrective experiences, which has helped me to define the kind of psychologist I want to be. My story reminds me that I am a “wounded healer.” It is precisely my own hurt that has enabled me to become an agent of healing and restoration.

Your story is truly inspiring… Thank you so much for sharing it with us. Can you describe any recurring types of hardships you observed and addressed in your work with children and families in California and South America?

Poverty was the number one issue that afflicted the families I served. Many kids had parents without a formal education or valid work permit. Sometimes these parents were working upwards of 60 hours a week, but they were so underpaid they could not make their bills. Also, many children lived in single-parent homes due to divorce, incarceration or deportation of a parent, or death due to violent crime. Because of the limited resources, these children often had very unstable home environments, and many families experienced displacement resulting from the gentrification of their communities.

A large percentage of children in the communities I worked in came from immigrant families in which one or both parents experienced traumatic events. A significant number of their traumatic experiences were related to the process of migrating to the U.S. Given these circumstances, a great number of parents experienced high levels of stress, which impacted their ability to interact with their children in adaptive ways and their ability to cope with adversity. As a result of persistently experiencing these circumstances, many of the children and their families struggled with a sense of hopelessness.

Access to medical care and mental health care services was also limited because these services were far from their communities, and many people faced transportation challenges. Parents’ lack of awareness of mental health services, stigma, or fear also determined if children received such services.

As we know, all these challenges affect children’s academic performance. In addition, schools often lack the resources to support struggling students. However, schools and nonprofits can play a tremendous role in addressing these multilayered and interconnected issues that our children and families face. Creating innovative and empathetic solutions to challenges families face such as limited transportation, confusing referral systems, inadequate clinician staffing in schools, and significant stress levels is where we will start to see lasting community change.

We absolutely agree with having to create holistic support systems to heal troubled communities. It definitely takes time to get there, as The School Zone’s collective impact efforts in West Dallas span almost a decade. After years of our schools and nonprofits collaborating, building trust and sharing student-level data, receiving training and professional development, and working through problems together, we have all created an incredibly effective, synergistic partnership. And the results show in our students’ improved academic performance and increased levels of social/emotional health. Our partners in West Dallas committed to the work it would take to ignite systemic change, and their dedication has led to a stronger community – even amidst the aggressive gentrification.

Can you share with us some protective techniques parents, teachers and nonprofit staff can use to help children of families in our partner communities who are disproportionally affected by racism, immigration, deportation and poverty?

For Parents: My primary recommendation for parents is to make an effort to spend quality time with their kids every day. This is more than helping them with homework, but engaging in an activity that leads them to experience mutual enjoyment. We have seen that engaging in 5-10 minutes of play time each day resulted in fewer behavior problems and better attachment for young children. This practice strengthens the quality of the parent-child relationship. I also encourage our families to build a strong support system – to recruit people from church, local nonprofits, family and friends who are willing to invest in their children and can help to provide consistent supervision for their kids. We also coach parents to communicate high expectations to their kids, especially regarding academic performance, and to make themselves available to support their kids in both academic and extracurricular activities.

For Educators: We ask educators to identify students at risk and invest more time and effort in them. One extremely effective intervention is visiting at-risk students in their homes. We coach teachers to communicate with parents more intentionally. When engaging with students with behavior problems, I advise them to find out why these behaviors are happening rather than taking them as a personal offense.

For Nonprofit Staff: We encourage nonprofits to not only meet the immediate needs (e.g. counseling, tutoring, legal assistance, etc.) of their client families, but to also get involved with their local community to promote systemic changes. It is important to not only work for the community, but also to work with its residents, give them a forum to voice their concerns and help them organize to begin creating the change they want. It is imperative that nonprofits communicate with policy makers about the needs of the communities they serve. Additionally, we ask nonprofits to collaborate with other agencies to drive change.

One example that illustrates the power of collaboration in Dallas is Pastoral Counseling Center’s (PCC) co-location strategy. We have more than 17 satellite locations throughout the Dallas metroplex. We partner with other nonprofits to provide mental health services within their facilities (co-location), and we deploy therapists to these sites. Some of our satellites are hosted in churches, schools, and nonprofits to give families with transportation issues access to our therapy services. We operate as far as Frisco, Garland and south Dallas. Because of The School Zone partnership, we have co-located with Brother Bill’s Helping Hand, Wesley-Rankin Community Center and Trinity River Mission. At West Dallas Community School, one of our PCC therapists runs the school counseling program. We were also running the counseling program at Amelia Earhart Learning Center prior to the campus closing. PCC implements cognitive behavior interventions at local schools and nonprofits, and we offer professional development to all the nonprofits in The School Zone. The Budd Center provides funding for several trainings each semester with its nonprofit partners at Mercy Street, Readers 2 Leaders and Trinity River Mission. Our approach is designed to bridge the gap between need and access, and that is what must be done in low-income communities to create sustainable, systemic change.

PCC’s co-location strategy is making such an impact on ensuring our families and students receive the social/emotional support they need. This kind of collaboration between partners is a huge part of why The School Zone works. Would you please share with us some innovations and practices you’ve seen in schools and nonprofits in other communities that have yielded breakthrough results for students?

In Santa Monica, I witnessed the implementation of a preschool mental health consultation program that had significant impact because it provided prevention and early intervention in a setting where it was possible to address children’s educational and socio-emotional needs in collaboration with parents. This program launched because a nonprofit mental health agency partnered with the school district and other agencies and obtained a grant to send therapists into preschool facilities to identify children at risk and provide mental health services. The program received funding from the city, and the nonprofit implemented the intervention themselves. Collaboration with parents is crucial. The key is for schools and nonprofits to consistently provide holistic support for families – parenting classes, prevention and early intervention services, empowering and giving people tools. In communities where nonprofits and schools engage in consistent preventative measures, there are lower rates of crime and mental health issues than in other low-income communities.

I observed another innovative and collaborative effort in Compton, California. A group of nonprofits, including churches, partnered to create community gardens in places that used to be neglected in multiple marginalized communities. This community effort is not only producing nutritious food and jobs for the community, but also creating opportunities for recreation, exercise, therapy, and education, as well as reducing crime and beautifying the neighborhoods. Sensory integration is another innovative approach where children participate in activities that promote awareness of the body-mind connection. More and more, schools and mental health programs are incorporating yoga, psycho-ballet, and the expression of emotions through the arts. These environments foster stronger bonds between children and their caregivers. Incorporating freedom of movement and creativity into a child’s daily routine has tremendous impact on their overall well-being.

One of the most innovative ways to promote socio-emotional health in children is to create opportunities for cooperation among diverse members of a community. The School Zone partnership in West Dallas is addressing interconnected issues that affect children living in poverty, and, from what I have seen in this community, nonprofits and schools are collaborating in an effective way. It takes time and commitment to begin making a significant impact on academic outcomes and children’s well-being, and the work of The School Zone is making steady headway and serving as a model of what collective impact can achieve.

Pastoral Counseling Center has been a trusted resource for families in navigating life’s changes and challenges through faith integrated counseling and psychological services. The Center’s licensed therapists and residents provide affordable counseling and psychological evaluations for children, teens, and adults. Pastoral Counseling Center is one of 33 nonprofits in The School Zone in West Dallas.

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