Can you remember back to your first Christmas? How old were you? What toys did you open? Emma can remember her first Christmas, the toys she opened, the dinner she ate, the ornaments she made, the stockings she hung, and the wreaths she put up.
All of these memories are pretty vivid for the 16-year-old from Southern Ohio because Emma’s first real Christmas came at the end of 2019 in a residential program at The Village Network’s Wooster campus.
The teen grew up with her biological family, and she witnessed her parents fight a lot. “Drama” filled the home. She didn’t feel loved, and she couldn’t recall ever being hugged by someone who loved her. That, too, would have to wait for The Village Network.
As a young teen, Emma entered the foster care system. Through a series of poor decisions, she has become one of 58 youth in Ohio last year who mental health experts referred to The Village Network’s Therapeutic Stabilization Center (TSC) in Wooster.
The vision for the TSC helping people kids exactly like Emma. It serves as a transitional place where youth can receive treatment as they step down to an environment that is not as restrictive.
And, that’s what happened to Emma.
Prior to her TSC referral, Emma said she wasn’t acting stable. She had been in another program, but decisions to self-harm led to her dismissal. After time in a psychiatric hospital, a therapist recommended she be transferred to the Therapeutic Stabilization Center.
Emma spent 37 days at the TSC. Things turned around for her while there. So, why now?
“I finally met people who loved me,” Emma said. “I realized people loved me more than I loved myself, and I (eventually) learned that I loved myself. It took me a long time to learn that.”
Emma found it difficult to believe she was worthy of being loved because of her home environment. Instead of a warm home filled with love, Emma felt she had no worth, which was influenced by having no birthdays, no Christmases, no hugs.
Amanda Longworth, a clinical therapist with The Village Network, helped Emma on her transition.
“When I first met Miss Amanda, I didn’t know what to say. As soon as I met her, I felt comfortable with myself,” Emma said.
Emma learned whenever she felt comfortable, Longworth would be willing to give her a hug, which can be appropriate and therapeutic, Longworth said.
“It was really hard for me,” Emma said, as tears welled in her eyes. The tears formed because she remembered what it was like before and after meeting Longworth, she said.
“When I first got here, I didn’t let people in,” Emma said. “I was afraid of what they would think of me; it wasn’t just like you could hug me.”
However, the power of the human touch in a caring gesture during therapy helped set Emma on a path to success. She finally began to accept the fact she had new people in her life now, people who cared for her.
When Emma asked for the first hug, she said she felt happy and suddenly understood there could be a better version of herself, one that did not include harming herself, yelling at others, throwing things, or going AWOL (leaving her assigned areas) — the very behaviors that brought her to the TSC.
The treatment plan included a goal of moving Emma into a foster home. Her reaction?
“Yikes!” Emma said. “I didn’t think I was stable enough to go.”
After 37 days, Emma was stable enough to be placed in the Nadine Foster EFAS Park, a safe house for girls. It was also the place where she celebrated her Sweet 16 and her first Christmas. While Emma didn’t want to be there when she turned 16, she decided it wasn’t that bad a place to be.
The move to EFAS Park demonstrated Emma’s continued growth. She stepped down from a psychiatric hospital, and she again stepped down, this time into a residential treatment home.
EFAS Park Supervisor Rachel Moore said she believes Emma learned how to love herself, decreased the number of incidents of self-harming, and became less of a risk of going AWOL between her time at the TSC until her latest transfer. She has also learned how to respect herself.
Surrounded by people who care for her, having celebrated a milestone birthday and experienced her first Christmas, Emma has become a leader at EFAS Park. When we talked to her in February, she hadn’t self-harmed in five months. She started going to church, which she said helps her.
Emma works on improving herself everyday, and the news keeps getting better: She was scheduled for her first foster home visit.
The news of Emma’s progress makes Rich Graziano, President & CEO, very proud.
“This is the reason the Board of Trustees was willing to invest and partner with the Mental Health & Recovery Board of Wayne & Holmes Counties and the state to build the Therapeutic Stabilization Center,” Graziano said. “It is great to hear success stories like Emma’s and to see the great work our team does.”