`I know how you feel'. Program brings together abused young people. CHILDREN HELP CHILDREN
CINDY, aged 14, walked up to a life-size human figure drawn on a big sheet of paper on the wall. The figure was to represent the person who had hurt Cindy the most in her life. She was supposed to say whatever she'd always wanted to say to that person. As Cindy, a survivor of incest, stood there, the words didn't come. All she could do was cry.Skip to next paragraph
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Jason, a six-year-old boy who had been physically abused by his mother, walked up to Cindy and gave her a big hug.
``It was so weird,'' Cindy, now 16, remembers. ``This little kid was what we call a real `pistol,' and he'd never shown that kind of emotion in our group before. He was the last kid I would have expected to come up and hug me.''
Cindy and Jason were participants in a group program at the Parental Stress Center in Madison, Wis.
Called Children Helping Children, it brings together adult counselors, teen-age survivors of incest, and children aged 5 to 12 who have been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused.
Fran Nelson, director of the center, says Children Helping Children was a natural offshoot of the center's existing programs for abusive parents. ``We were working with parents, but we weren't doing anything for the kids,'' says Ms. Nelson. ``Our thinking was, if we're going to break the cycle of abuse, the earlier we start, the better.''
Nelson got the idea of bringing teen-agers into the program while watching counselor Mary Boncher work with children at a local shelter for battered women.
``I was impressed with Mary's ability to get down and just be a kid,'' recalls Nelson. It was beautiful to see how she could get the kids to come out of themselves. I thought, if a grown-up can do that, why not use somebody closer to their age who needs some work, too?''
The people Nelson had in mind were the teen-agers in an incest survivor program at the Parental Stress Center. ``Some were still carrying around guilt,'' she says, ``feeling that what had happened to them was their fault.
``I thought it would be good for them to work with younger kids, so they could see how tender they themselves were at that age. On the flip side of that, the younger kids would see that, yes, people do survive this.''
Once Nelson got funding for the program, she hired Ms. Boncher to design and operate it. From the start, Boncher said she felt strongly that the teens should be regarded as co-facilitators of the group, not as clients.
The teens, however, also need support, says Boncher. After the 90-minute session with the children, the adults and teens meet for another two hours to talk about what happened and how it is affecting them.
Boncher comments, ``You can't just walk away from these groups and not feel. Sometimes my heart just aches afterwards, and I want to cry. That happens to all of us. We all need to talk about it - we all need support. And maybe the teens need a little extra.''
That's why the teens are required to be in either the incest survivor group at the Parental Stress Center or in individual counselings during their stints as co-facilitators.
GWEN, now 19, says Children Helping Children assisted her both during and after her participation three years ago. For her, she comments, getting into the program was ``a survival skill.''
``I had taken my father to court so he would get some help,'' she explains. ``I was concerned he was going to sexually abuse my sister, too. A lot of my reason for going to court was to stop that from happening.
``But the outcome of the trial was that nothing really happened, and my dad did abuse my sister. So, I felt, if I can't help her, maybe I can help someone else.''