October 2021

Embracing Change and Building Skills

A student’s growth at Green Chimneys

Written by the Staff of Green Chimneys

https://www.greenchimneys.org/therapeutic-special-education/green-chimneys-school

What does it feel like to start a new school? Some of us experienced this in our own childhood. Maybe you recall what it felt like to get your first job or move to a new neighborhood. For children who come to Green Chimneys, as either day or residential students, the transition can be significant. Factor in the additional pressures of the current global pandemic, and one can begin to imagine how a family may feel about taking this step.

In August, one particular family drove from Oceanside, Long Island to our Brewster campus to help their 13 year old settle into his new dorm. Beau would start Mr. Torres' eighth-grade class in September and his family, in consultation with our clinical team, felt the last two weeks of summer would allow Beau time to get to know dorm mates and staff, explore the campus, and get acclimated before his school schedule began. The family had visited Green Chimneys previously but this time, Beau would stay and his family would return home.

Green Chimneys is uniquely a therapeutic day school, residential treatment center, and working farm. Nearly 250 elementary through high school students attend Green Chimneys School daily. The common thread for these children is that they face mental health issues such as depression, trauma and autism spectrum disorders, to name a few, which have made their school and home lives extremely challenging. Green Chimneys is a New York State-approved 853 school accepting students from in-state schools, or who are returning from out-of-state programs and in need of continued support.

Headquartered on a farm in Brewster, NY, with a second campus in Carmel, NY, Green Chimneys is recognized as a worldwide leader in animal-assisted therapy and educational activities and programs strategically integrate nature-based practices into academics, therapies, and recreation. The Farm & Wildlife Center is home to over 300 farm animals, equines, and permanently injured wildlife. Animal-assisted activities, gardening, and outdoor experiences help students make connections, practice coping skills, and more.

Leading up to Green Chimneys

The path that leads most families to Green Chimneys is often a difficult one. For most of our students, the traditional school setting no longer meets their needs. Behaviors, emotional dysregulation, communication issues, and/or a lack of coping skills exacerbated by mental health challenges or developmental delays can severely impact a child's means of participating in everyday life. Recognizing the trauma a child may experience because of these struggles helps staff acknowledge each student's history as unique. At Green Chimneys, this perspective, combined with an individualized education plan and a specialized treatment team, creates the foundation for each student's academic and personal growth.

For Beau, things had really come to a head the year prior to his arrival. Regardless of the love and support of his family, 'ordinary' days had become increasingly hard for him to get through. To his parents, it would seem like things were fine and then suddenly Beau would be in crisis. It was difficult for Beau to convey his feelings or articulate needs so things would pile up to a point where, to Beau, it felt insurmountable. Beau's many interests "sports, the outdoors, animals" no longer seemed to bring him joy. Words like "self harm" and "suicidal verbalization" may be used to clinically describe steps in his journey leading up to Green Chimneys but to his family, it's been years of struggle and heartache, mixed with much love and family connection, that brought Beau here.

Building relationships with animals

One of the first things Beau showed interest in at Green Chimneys was the donkeys, and he asked his social worker Sarah Shenefield if they could take a donkey for a walk. Together, with guidance from Equine Program Instructor Valerie Parody, both Beau and Sarah learned how to properly harness and walk with donkey Reba. This was the start of Beau and Sarah's therapeutic relationship, as well as Beau's relationship with Reba.

As school began, and summer turned into fall, Beau became accustomed to his new routines. In school, he invested in his studies and wasn't shy to embrace activities his peers were less enthusiastic about; Beau never missed a swim lesson! He and Sarah began plotting therapeutic goals while walking Reba or taking advantage of other aspects of campus. Knowing that sessions could be difficult, Sarah planned them with Beau. They decided it would be best to sit with the goats when they met.

Tapping into trusted coping skills

Before Green Chimneys, Beau ran track in his school district and relied on running as a coping skill when he felt down or upset. The activity helps him regulate his emotions and energy. To support this outlet and to reinforce all that Beau accomplished in his first months here, Sarah recruited a running buddy. Several mornings a week, Beau runs with Zac Staszak, Director of Recreation. This one-on-one time before the school day has allowed Beau to show off his speed and boost his confidence. Their runs take them through the farm and into scenarios not typically found on a runner's daily route. A pair of turkeys in our Wildlife Center have become accustomed to seeing the early morning athletes; as Beau and Zac approach, the turkeys begin to run alongside them in their pen. And for Beau, it's nearly impossible to dash past the goats without stopping.

Joining the community as a family

Beau hasn't been alone in establishing new relationships; Beau's parents are our partners in his success. Green Chimneys understands that parents and caregivers are the experts when it comes to their children. As such, Beau's mom and stepmom communicate with staff regularly. They actively participate in much of what Green Chimneys offers: family therapy sessions, as well as virtual training workshops and online support groups for caregivers. "We love the workshops and getting input from other parents," explains Audrey Linsky, Beau's mother. "Staff is always around to listen to us parents and help give us the strength and guidance we need at times."

Seeing and feeling progress

Beau is making great progress toward trusting others and opening up. He's begun expressing his feelings appropriately. And with Sarah and his team's support, Beau is continuing to work on verbalizing thoughts, feelings, and needs to adults. There are times when Beau may shut down when he's upset, as many teenagers tend to do. He's learning to cope with emotions so that when he is distressed, he doesn't shut out those who are here to help him. Beau has great insights, is motivated, and seeks to strengthen communication skills with his parents.

"From the beginning, we felt a sigh of relief seeing how excited Beau was and how much he loves the campus," explains Jen Linsky, Beau's stepmother. "We love working with our team and appreciate the love and support we get from the other parents. As a family, we have come such a long way. We know we still have a lot of work to do, but we are on an amazing path to success."