For Cassandra Jennings, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have taken on a new reality. One of 36 students representing a cross section of TCS programs, Cassandra-a Clinical Psy.D. student in the Child and Adolescent track-is devoting her weekends to helping families of returning Illinois veterans recover from the splintered existence that defined their deployment.
A sample of children artwork created at Yellow Ribbon Project
Together with Dr. Ted Rubenstein and several expressive arts therapists, students are using music, art, and drama to help military children deal with the fears and uncertainties that often result from a parent's active duty assignment. It has been an experience that has given Cassandra and her classmates an opportunity to see first hand the toll that the war has taken on the soldiers and their families. More importantly, it has given them the chance to make a difference in the lives they touch.
"One of the most challenging aspects of the program has been listening to soldiers talk about what it was like," she says. "It's one thing to hear about the war in the news; it's another thing to come face to face with people who were most affected. It makes us really want to help, but we want to be able to do so much more."
The program, known as the Yellow Ribbon Project, was developed earlier this year by The Chicago School in partnership with the Michael Reese Health Trust and the Illinois Army National Guard. Operating under the direction of Dr. Rubenstein, assistant professor of clinical psychology and a specialist in the use of expressive arts therapy, initiative is part of a larger state-run Veterans Reintegration Project, which provides a wide range of services to returning veterans, their spouses, and, with the help of TCS, their children. It is the first big project to be offered by TCS' newly established Veterans Center.
The Yellow Ribbon Project involves weekend visits to 18 small-to-midsize Illinois towns, where student volunteers work with children ages 3 to 15 who are in the midst of the family reintegration process. While 80 children participated during the first few weeks, the project is set up to serve a total of 1,500 children in the next few months.
Whether the therapy is centered on painting pictures, singing, or performing on stage, the hope is that children will use the opportunity to express feelings they may not be comfortable putting into words. One of the most moving moments for Cassandra came when a 13-year-old girl who had been grappling with her father's absence and medical issues of her own used drama to convey her fears and loneliness.
"She opened up to the therapist who was playing the part of her mother and was able to work through the emotions that had left her feeling scared and confused," Cassandra says. "It ended with her gathering her family to say a prayer together before they went to bed. She was in an age group that you would expect would resist exercises like this, but instead she had everyone in the room on the verge of tears."
This year more than 3,000 members of the Illinois National Guard are returning home from deployment to the Middle East. While some have brought with them physical injuries, many more are grappling with the emotional consequences of life in a combat zone and with the toll their absence has taken on their families. The National Guard is addressing the needs of these soldiers and their spouses by providing a range of assessment services, informational workshops, and referrals.
"Until we launched the Yellow Ribbon Project, services available for soldiers' children were limited to daycare while their parents attended workshops," says Dr. Deane Rabe, associate vice president of student engagement and student affairs. "Our expertise in psychology, our supply of student volunteers, and Dr. Rubenstein's access to expressive art therapists through the Institute for Therapy Through the Arts (ITA) enabled us to design a program that meets children's needs as well."
The project has been so well received that discussions are underway to further expand services to other branches of the military and veterans and active duty soldiers in other states. Dr. Rubenstein and his students have compiled a workbook-which will be copyrighted-for therapists to use with leading children through the process of expressing their feelings that may preoccupy them and learning to work on empathy and empowerment. Also created have been a series of reports that can be replicated as the program expands.
Although children attend only one or two sessions with TCS students, follow-up takes place with the help of a book that parents receive, offering suggestions on communication and readjustment strategies to use with their children. The hope is that parents will continue the conversations initiated during creative arts therapy sessions and build healthy communication skills in their children.
"Our goal is that one week from now, or one month from now, there will be a family at the dinner table and a child will be able to say to his mom or dad, 'While you were away, I missed you and I was scared and I was mad that you left'," Dr. Rubenstein says.
Students have also offered suggestions of their own to enhance the healing process for the children they have worked with.
"I have suggested having teenage girls in the program exchange email addresses so they can expand their support system and keep in touch with people who have shared experiences," Cassandra says. Her suggestion has been passed along to National Guard officers who oversee the project.