North Philly neighbors wrestle with stress

The New Eyes program is teaching adults to handle situations before they result in trauma.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Darryl Murphy
After just five minutes of her first stress-management workshop, Debra Myrick said, “I should have been here 35 years ago.”

In her North Philadelphia community, Myrick said, raising a family meant non-stop worry.

“I was stressed about my children. I was scared about every little thing,” she said.

The shadow of serious trouble is never far from anyone, even a law-abiding construction worker like her son.

“When he goes out the door, I pray. I pray,” Myrick said. “Sometimes I pray all day long.”

Myrick was one of a half-dozen North Philadelphia residents who turned out at Strawberry Mansion High for the last of a series of workshops called the New Eyes program. Sponsored by the United Way and the Institute of Family Professionals, it teaches community members to “see stress with new eyes” and handle it in healthy ways.

She was delighted to sit with a group of neighbors to share stories and learn about the basics of stress: where it comes from, how it morphs from manageable to toxic, and how to defang it before it leads to traumas that can affect an entire family.

“One thing I like about this program … it makes people aware: ‘I’m not alone,’” said New Eyes instructor Colbert Partridge.

Altogether, almost 600 North Philadelphia residents attended one of the 27 New Eyes workshops, where they learned basic stress-management techniques such as relaxing with “belly breathing” or making a “safety list” of calming mental steps.

The techniques may be simple, Partridge said, but as a former probation officer, he knows the stakes are high. The stressed-out child who acts out in school can soon become the young adult with academic or legal problems. But when parents can handle their own stress, Partridge said, they can help break the cycle.

“If the parents model behavior, the children pick it up,” he said.

Myrick knows the cycle well – it can start as soon as the sun comes up. An overworked parent who lashes out at a child who can’t find his shoes or her homework can unwittingly disrupt an entire classroom, she said.

“Sending your child to school upset – they’ll have an attitude all day long,” said Myrick. “They’ll pick on other kids.”

Myrick’s friend Lenora Jackson, a mother and grandmother who works at the nearby Strawberry Mansion Neighborhood Action Center, has seen that far too many times.

“Early in the morning, when they just get to school, they’re just acting out with the teachers,” Jackson said. “I’m saying, ‘What could have happened?’”

From stress to trauma

Programs like New Eyes are the exception when it comes to dealing with stress, said Michael O’Bryan, an artist and youth advocate with North Philadelphia’s Village for the Arts and Humanities.

“Pockets of us get it. But overall we don’t really talk about it,” O’Bryan said. “Rich people, poor people, distressed communities – anybody talking about stress right now is kind of unheard of.”

O’Bryan has been involved with what he calls “trauma-informed community engagement” for about 10 years. He recently joined a project called the Trauma Informed Care Initiative, supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, whose goal is to bring the “Sanctuary Model” of trauma-informed advocacy to the Strawberry Mansion community.

The basic stress factors that North Philadelphians live with, he said, aren’t that different from those that affect any community – money, work, obligations to children and elders.

But add to that the combined effects of crime, violence, and underfunded schools and public institutions, and “chronic stressors” can soon become “complex and chronic trauma,” O’Bryan said, causing “an overload on the body, on the brain, on the immune system.”

“Think about the mornings people are having in the neighborhood. If a parent’s stressed, it’s probably not really because the kid can’t find their socks,” O’Bryan said. “It’s because they’re tired. They have to go work a 10-, 12-hour day” for little money.

Jackson, who works at the Neighborhood Action Center, said stress is so deeply woven into life in Strawberry Mansion that people take it for granted.

“A lot of our kids and families don’t know they’re in trauma,” she said. “They live it, but they don’t know how to address it. … It’s so normal. It’s just a way of life.”

Jackson’s neighbor Jacqueline White, who has three children and three grandchildren, agreed. She enjoyed the New Eyes workshop – “the breathing thing. I loved it!” she said – but she wished more of her friends had come, like one who’s raising nine children.

“She posted in Facebook, ‘Oh my, I’m so stressed out. I’m gonna have these kids, by myself, for the rest of my life,” said White.

She fears that her friend’s children will end up “just as mad as she is.”

“Whatever she puts on them, they’re going to do it to their little friends. The same thing.”

A healing center – and hugs

Parents are never too old to learn about stress management, said New Eyes trainer Janet Oesterling, and children are never too young.

“I have children I work with that are 3 years old,” she said. “I’ll sit down and talk to them. What can they do to make themselves feel a little bit calmer? That helps them. Because when we say ‘calm down’ to a child, what does that look like? How do I do that? We give them some concrete steps.”

But there’s only so much a family can do, Myrick said. Once children leave the house, they’re at the mercy of the community. For one of her grandchildren, a rowdy lunchroom alone can be traumatizing.

“She’s handicapped,” said Myrick. “I picked her up the other day, and she was upset, because another child got in her face. Somebody should be able to protect her. Who’s there for her? Just because another child’s stressed!”

That kind of institutional failing is the tip of the iceberg, said O’Bryan. When schools that can’t fully nurture their students graduate them into communities that don’t offer them jobs and opportunities, a certain level of crime, violence and trauma is bound to result.

“We want to heal trauma, but we don’t want to deal with the economic stressors that [become] biological stressors,” he said.

No one understands these dynamics better than North Philadelphia residents, he said. The solution that his Strawberry Mansion project has settled on is to create a kind of all-purpose trauma healing center, offering mental health services, arts programming, and access to job training and other economic opportunities.

The group hopes to house the center in the former L.P. Hill Elementary building, next door to Strawberry Mansion High. Its proposal is about 75 percent ready, he said.

“We’ve got to invest in those spaces more and more,” O’Bryan said. “I just want to expose people to as much knowledge as possible.”

In the meantime, the participants at New Eyes know it’s up to them to do what they can.

Lenora Jackson makes sure she’s always ready to hold a needy child.

“It’s just love. That’s why hugging is so important,” she said. “Especially the little ones. You ain’t gotta be cussin’ them out. A lot of times that’s all they hear.”

But Debra Myrick said it’s bound to be an uphill battle.

“When you live in the inner city, the streets’ll rip the kids up before you can even control it,” she said.

“If you don’t teach them in the house … the street’s going to teach them everything. That’s reality. I have nephews – my sister’s a good mother. But they think the streets showed them more love.”

Bill Hangley Jr. is a freelance contributor to the Notebook; on Twitter@BillHangley.