Hillsides Community Blog

Keeping families together

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Photo credit: John Moore/Getty Images and published on Vox.com

For the children we serve in our residential program, the need to separate them from their families is usually because of a safety issue rooted in the emotional challenges they are experiencing. Traumas they have experienced because of instability in their homes contribute to their emotional state. They arrive confused, weary, angry, despondent, and anxious. However, no matter how dysfunctional their home situation might have been, they nevertheless want to go home, return to their community, and enjoy the comfort of what is familiar.

As a result, one of the first things we do is to reassure both child and family that we are committed to developing a pathway for the child to be returned home as soon as possible. It is never an easy road to reunification but it is important to do everything we can to make it happen and to do so quickly. To do otherwise would be cruel.

In light of this mission, it has been extremely difficult to see the images this past week of children separated from their families at our southern border. The vitriol from both sides has been extreme, and so it is with some reluctance that I weigh in on the discussion. To remain silent is to be complicit in light of this injustice.

The bond between a parent and child is sacred — so sacred that it must be preserved at all costs and cannot be seen as a negotiating tool no matter if related to another issue, such as immigration policy. The separation of parents from their children has no justification, and to argue such is pointless and runs the risk of being interpreted as a cruel tactic to advance a political agenda.

As I write this commentary, President Trump signed an executive order to end this policy of separating undocumented adults from their children when attempting unauthorized entry into the country. This is an important move because it restores a modicum of civility to an otherwise chaotic situation and makes a statement not only to those seeking unauthorized entry to the country but to all Americans that children will not be used as pawns in the divisive political environment of our day.

Those running for political office often address the well-being and safety of our children as a priority. However, laudable statements do not always translate into credible actions. Whether it is separating children from parents at the border, the failure to adequately fund education, threatening entitlements for needy children, reluctance to provide common-sense gun control to assure safety in our schools, or balancing budgets by sacrificing services for children, repeatedly the rhetoric does not match the action. It is shameful and not acceptable, and we must not be reluctant to call it out and hold those elected accountable.

Eighteen Top Book Picks for Summer 2018

By Sherri Ginsberg

Editor’s note:  Summer is here, which means your children have more time to read for pleasure. Here, Hillsides’ award-winning librarian Sherri Ginsberg, gives some top book  recommendations for children of all ages.  

 

 Readers 4 – 8 years old

How to Code a Sandcastle by Josh Funk

A picture book that makes coding explainable for the little ones in the house.

Ordinary Extraordinary Jane Austen by Deborah Hopkinson

A gorgeous picture book of one of our greatest writers who was quiet and shy, but oh, could she write!

Have a Little Pun: an Illustrated Play on Words by Frida Clements

Artist Frida Clements playfully combines colorfully detailed flora and fauna drawings with funny hand-lettered wordplay in this collection of beautifully illustrated puns.

Readers 8 – 12 years old

Good Dog by Dan Gemeinhart

Brodie is a mutt who has died but will return to save his boy in this emotionally driven fantasy about change, loss, love and loyalty.

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper

Melody is an 11-year-old with a photographic memory unable to talk until she discovers something that will allow her to speak for the first time ever.

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The diminutive Supreme Court judge has become a cult figure while attempting to transform the USA into a just and fair country for all.

Sunny by Jason Reynolds

When a perpetually happy seeming boy, Sunny, is chosen for an elite middle school track team, we learn that he is not as joyful as he seems.  We root for him as he finds a unique way to use his athletic ability to heal from the past.

The Button War by Avi

This historical fiction novel, which  takes place in Russian-occupied Poland in 1914, revolves around seven boys who compete to steal the best military button and be crowned Button King.

All Summer Long by Hope Larson

This coming of age story focuses on what happens when a girl’s best friend is away at summer camp and she has to figure out how to entertain herself.

The Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell

This graphic novel follows a neighborhood of kids who transform ordinary cardboard (hello, Amazon!) into fantastical homemade costumes as they explore conflicts with friends, family, and their own identity.

The Mortification of Fovea Munson by Mary Winn Heider

A summer job for 12-year-old Fovea Munson in her parents’ cadaver lab leads to her discovery of three talking heads in need of a favor.

Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White by Melissa Sweet

This is a fascinating portrait of the famed New Yorker essayist and author of “Stuart Little” and “Charlotte’s Web,” who had an extreme fear of public speaking and struggled with depression and hypochondria.

Young adult readers (13 & above)

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Sixteen year old Starr Carter moves between two worlds; the neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. Her life is turned upside down when she witnesses the fatal shooting of her best friend by a police officer.

The sun is also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Natasha is spending her last day in New York City because her family is being deported to Jamaica after her father’s recent arrest when she meets Daniel, falls in love, and doesn’t want to leave the city.

Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes

A high school student writes a poem for his high school English class, which inspires the teacher to have a weekly poetry session that becomes one of the most popular classes.

 Puddin’ by Julie Murphy

Millie is fine being fat and doesn’t want to return to weight-loss summer camp.  Instead, she winds up working at her aunt and uncle’s gym, which leads to some unlikely friendships and a romance.

I am not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sanchez

A “perfect” Mexican daughter stays home, doesn’t go to college, and is loyal to her family.  However, this all changes when she is killed in an accident and her not-so-perfect sister Julia  is left to pick up the pieces of her family while discovering maybe her sister wasn’t as perfect as she seemed.

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

The dead are rising from their graves at Gettysburg, and the recently emancipated slaves are sent to combat schools to learn how to kill the walking dead.

 

Sherri has worked at Hillsides for 12 years, and previously worked at libraries on the East Coast, where she designed a library, worked in a law library, a public library,  and two  school libraries. She has a master’s degree in information sciences from Rutgers University. Sherri was recently honored to receive a 2016 “I love my librarian award” awarded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, The New York Public Library, The New York Times, and the American Library Association. Sherri says she reads “tons and tons of books of all genres,” and especially enjoys bringing authors to the library so they can share their works with the children of Hillsides.

Graduation 2018 – A Day of Emotion, Inspiration, and Hope

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Left to right:  Teaching Assistant Mary Marquez, Hillsides president and CEO Joseph M. Costa, teacher Gabriel Villasenor, and teaching assistant Sara Garcia. 

There was not a dry eye in the house on graduation day at the Hillsides Education Center (HEC). The graduates, including two of our long-time residents, proudly held their diplomas and shared their stories of how they got to this milestone in spite of the challenges they confront.

We heard from one graduate, Megan, who thanked her grandmother for taking in her family when they needed a home.  “The world is a cold place, and you shielded me from that,” she said.  She also thanked vocational education teacher Robert Bazzo for being a positive male role model in her life after her father died, and classroom teacher Gabriel Villasenor for making her feel confident and smart.  “He gave me reasons to graduate and go on with my life,” she said. “He was a friend to guide me through the dark woods.”

Another student spoke about her thoughts of suicide and how at HEC she had learned to embrace life.  “I am now happy, brave, and ambitious,” she said.  She gave a special thank you to teaching assistant Mary Marquez, saying, “Thank you for teaching me to love myself…. Thank you for looking at my face every day and telling me I can do it.”

Other students recounted their struggles with school work, mental illness, and the death of a loved one.  Perhaps one young woman summed up the healing experience of HEC best when she said, “Hillsides helped me spread my wings…. Thank you for helping me become someone pretty great.”

For many, a high school diploma is no more than a rite of passage, a predictable achievement on their path to adulthood. Not so for the HEC graduates. Learning challenges, instability, phobias, and traumas are elements of their lives that some would consider insurmountable obstacles. Basic things like staying safe and in good spirits and relatively engaged with family and peers were more likely the reasonable expectation for these high school seniors. However, they have exceeded their own expectations, and in the process, have proven to themselves and everyone else that they will not be defined by a diagnosis but rather by their hopes and dreams.

What they shared as they celebrated their graduation was how their hopes and dreams were embraced by family, friends and the HEC staff. Together they came to this moment, and together with those that love and care for them, they proceed into the future. No doubt, challenges will inevitably be part of the next step to adulthood. Hopefully they will address these challenges confident in themselves and reassured by a community committed to their success.

Their stories were inspirational, affirming for us as an organization that the impact on their lives is long-lasting and life-changing.  In addition, two students performed during the ceremony, proving that challenges are no barrier to musical talent.

To all this who helped make this moment possible, family, friends, volunteers, and staff, thank you. Thank you also to the volunteer group Las Candelas, who functions as the PTA of the school, and who provided the students with generous gift cards to Target during the ceremony. However, to the graduates, I want to give a special thank you for allowing all of us to be part of your lives at this juncture.  Congratulations!

For more photos of the HEC graduation, please visit our Facebook page.

How One Social Worker Has the Right Stuff for the Joy and Heartache of Foster Care

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Bienvenidos foster care social worker Laura Cruz

by Alison Bell

What is it like in the day of a foster care social worker?  It’s both harder and more rewarding than you might think.

Patience and wisdom.  Check.

Ability to smooth over potential conflicts with skill of a diplomat.    Check.

Tolerance for long hours spent in a car.   Check.

On-demand problem solver.  Check.

Loving heart with capacity for great joy or heartbreak.  Check.

If you had to make a short list of qualities needed for a foster care, social worker Laura Cruz meets the requirements.  Now in her fifth year working for Hillsides’ affiliate, Bienvenidos, Laura spends long days supporting children and families in foster care.

Laura’s job begins when a child is matched with a resource (foster) family.  Bienvenidos has a stable of 96 resource families, with 233 children across Southern California either in or needing placement. Each week, Bienvenidos fields some 145 calls and emails of children needing a home.

Once a child is matched with a resource family, Laura coordinates with the social worker from the Department of Children and Family Services and works to activate the child’s medical benefits.  Next she visits the resource family and child, surveying the home, answering any questions, and offering her support.  If birth parents are involved, she also meets with them to work out visitations between them resource family and the child.

Laura can carry a caseload of 15 – 17 children.  While a child is in placement, she is tasked with making sure they are well-taken care of and getting all the services they need while also supporting both the birth and resource family.  A placement can last anywhere from a few days to several years, sometimes ending in adoption.  Bienvenidos has an office in Montclair, California and Pasadena, California, but her work can carry her as far away as Victorville, as the families she serves are spread across many miles.

During the first three months of a match, she meets with the child and resource family weekly; after three months if the home is stable, every other week.  She oversees all aspects of a child’s life, such as doctor visits, educational needs, birth family visits, and collaborates with county social worker, therapists, and  attorneys to meet a child’s needs.

Along the way, she forges relationships with the children and goes the extra mile to ensure they thrive.  She takes children to the movies and other outings, and recently took one of her teens to an event where the teen was pampered and provided with a prom dress, shoes and accessories.   She even spent a couple of months driving an hour from her home to arrive at a child’s home by 6: 30 a.m. to get him out of bed and ready for school when his resource family was growing frustrated because they could not rouse him and motivate him to attend school.  “These are the types of things the majority of the social workers at Bienvenidos do,” said Laura.  “We can’t help but get involved and create the best possible outcomes for the children.”

One challenging aspect of her job on occasion is navigating the inherently conflicted relationship between birth and resource parents.  Both want the best for their children, but may have different ideas on how to achieve that goal.  Another tough scenario is when resource parents who have become attached to a child must relinquish them if the child is reunified with their family of origin.   “They know it’s in the best interest of the child, but at the same time, it can be devastating for the resource family,” she said.

The job also comes with built-in heartache. For example, Laura recalls how once Bienvenidos was unable to place seven siblings together in one home since the resource families could only have up to six children in a home, including biological children. Therefore siblings were separated into four homes.  As two siblings separated from their brothers and sisters, one little one began to cry and scream because he didn’t want to get into the car that he knew would carry him away from his family.  “I lost it that day,” remembered Laura.

On the flip side, whenever she’s tired or feeling burned out, the kids lift her spirits.  “They have such good energy,” she said. “When I come into a home some of the little ones run to me, and hug me, and are excited to see me.  This compensates for any stress of the job.”

Laura didn’t start out her career in foster care.  She worked at a group home shelter for years, then switched to substance abuse education.   In 2013, she became interested in foster care when her brother, Edward Cruz became a resource parent with his wife Michelle.  (Edward, by the way, and his wife Michelle, adopted a little girl, Leah, a year ago.)  Edward’s mother-in-law has worked for Bienvenidos in foster care and adoptions for 29 years, and herself fostered and adopted a child.  When Laura started out at Bienvenidos, despite the family connection, she was a novice to the field.  “I had to learn quickly, all from scratch,” she said.

Today, despite the challenges and the varied qualities the job entails, Laura is hooked on her profession.  “The clients are like extended families to me,” she said.  “I can never quit – my families and my children need me.”

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The violence cannot be ignored

School shootings have become commonplace. They have averaged a little more than one a week since the beginning of 2018, 21 in total. Often the suggested remedy to such unspeakable violence is more funding for mental health services, greater security, and a common gun registry. When compared with other developed nations our spending on mental health services seems on par, tighter security has become commonplace in light of terrorist threats, and most countries have a way to track gun ownership. However, the one thing that does stands out for the United States is the shear amount of guns. Although the US represents only 4.5 percent of the world’s population, we possess 42 percent of all the world’s firearms, and this number may be understated.

Although access to firearms is controlled to some extent, the number of guns held by US residents makes access to firearms relatively easy. As with the recent shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, the guns were acquired legally by the gunman’s father. Arming school personnel, having increased security, and limiting access to guns for certain types of people will not address the fact that firearms are plentiful and easily accessed. Once again, in Texas this last week many suggestions were made regarding how to end gun violence without anyone mentioning the obvious remedy and that is to eliminate the guns. The failure to call out the real cause of the problem while enumerating failed solutions is disingenuous.

Given the vulnerability of the children we serve at Hillsides and their exposure to violence, in some instances gun violence, we can not be silent in the face of the gun violence epidemic that plagues us. We raise our voice not only because those we serve are affected by mental illness and are susceptible to being victims of gun-related violence. Rather we speak out because the mere threat of being shot is eroding the sense of safety and wellbeing that is a fundamental right in our security. As is stated by so many directly affected by such shootings, to live in such fear and trepidation is unacceptable. To justify our need to possess firearms as a constitutional right without acknowledging the abuse of that right is threatening the intent of the second amendment and points to how short sighted we have become as a nation.

A day of reckoning is coming. A generation of children and their families, directly impacted by such horror, will insist that we move beyond rhetoric and bring about common sense reforms to this issue of gun control.

Enough is enough. It is time to demand that those entrusted with our safety and wellbeing either act in our best interest or step aside and yield to those who will. Courageous action is required to keep our children safe, our schools welcoming places of learning, and our communities free of paranoia and suspicion.

Gun violenceSchool shootings have become commonplace. They have averaged a little more than one a week since the beginning of 2018, 21 in total. Often the suggested remedy to such unspeakable violence is more funding for mental health services, greater security, and a common gun registry. When compared with other developed nations our spending on mental health services seems on par, tighter security has become commonplace in light of terrorist threats, and most countries have a way to track gun ownership. However, the one thing that does stands out for the United States is the shear amount of guns. Although the US represents only 4.5 percent of the world’s population, we possess 42 percent of all the world’s firearms, and this number may be understated.

Although access to firearms is controlled to some extent, the number of guns held by US residents makes access to firearms relatively easy. As with the recent shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, the guns were acquired legally by the gunman’s father.  Arming school personnel, having increased security, and limiting access to guns for certain types of people will not address the fact that firearms are plentiful and easily accessed. Once again, in Texas this last week many suggestions were made regarding how to end gun violence without anyone mentioning the obvious remedy and that is to eliminate the guns. The failure to call out the real cause of the problem while enumerating failed solutions is disingenuous.

Given the vulnerability of the children we serve at Hillsides and their exposure to violence, in some instances gun violence, we can not be silent in the face of the gun violence epidemic that plagues us. We raise our voice not only because those we serve are affected by mental illness and are susceptible to being victims of gun-related violence. Rather we speak out because the mere threat of being shot is eroding the sense of safety and wellbeing that is a fundamental right in our security. As is stated by so many directly affected by such shootings, to live in such fear and trepidation is unacceptable. To justify our need to possess firearms as a constitutional right without acknowledging the abuse of that right is threatening the intent of the second amendment and points to how short sighted we have become as a nation.

A day of reckoning is coming.  A generation of children and their families, directly impacted by such horror, will insist that we move beyond rhetoric and bring about common sense reforms to this issue of gun control.

Enough is enough. It is time to demand that those entrusted with our safety and wellbeing either act in our best interest or step aside and yield to those who will. Courageous action is required to keep our children safe, our schools welcoming places of learning, and our communities free of paranoia and suspicion.

School shootings have become commonplace. They have averaged a little more than one a week since the beginning of 2018, 21 in total. Often the suggested remedy to such unspeakable violence is more funding for mental health services, greater security, and a common gun registry. When compared with other developed nations our spending on mental health services seems on par, tighter security has become commonplace in light of terrorist threats, and most countries have a way to track gun ownership. However, the one thing that does stands out for the United States is the shear amount of guns. Although the US represents only 4.5 percent of the world’s population, we possess 42 percent of all the world’s firearms, and this number may be understated.

Although access to firearms is controlled to some extent, the number of guns held by US residents makes access to firearms relatively easy. As with the recent shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, the guns were acquired legally by the gunman’s father. Arming school personnel, having increased security, and limiting access to guns for certain types of people will not address the fact that firearms are plentiful and easily accessed. Once again, in Texas this last week many suggestions were made regarding how to end gun violence without anyone mentioning the obvious remedy and that is to eliminate the guns. The failure to call out the real cause of the problem while enumerating failed solutions is disingenuous.

Given the vulnerability of the children we serve at Hillsides and their exposure to violence, in some instances gun violence, we can not be silent in the face of the gun violence epidemic that plagues us. We raise our voice not only because those we serve are affected by mental illness and are susceptible to being victims of gun-related violence. Rather we speak out because the mere threat of being shot is eroding the sense of safety and wellbeing that is a fundamental right in our security. As is stated by so many directly affected by such shootings, to live in such fear and trepidation is unacceptable. To justify our need to possess firearms as a constitutional right without acknowledging the abuse of that right is threatening the intent of the second amendment and points to how short sighted we have become as a nation.

A day of reckoning is coming. A generation of children and their families, directly impacted by such horror, will insist that we move beyond rhetoric and bring about common sense reforms to this issue of gun control.

Enough is enough. It is time to demand that those entrusted with our safety and wellbeing either act in our best interest or step aside and yield to those who will. Courageous action is required to keep our children safe, our schools welcoming places of learning, and our communities free of paranoia and suspicion.

 

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