The Change House Youth Center in Waverly

For children with behavioral diagnoses such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), managing their school and home life can present a serious challenge. At a youth center in Waverly, children and teenagers with these and related diagnoses develop strategies for coping with such conditions, learning from one another and earning incentives as they go.

“What we want to do is kind of gear every activity in here towards allowing them to be sociable, allowing them to follow directives, and accept their environment and use a goal/incentive to help them change their whole outlook on parenting, friendship, things like that,” explained Billy Foster, one of the founding partners of the Change House Youth Center, located on East 31st Street.

The center houses a psychiatric rehabilitation program currently serving 35 youth between the ages of six and 18, all with some sort of behavioral diagnosis. The goal of the program is to minimize the number of “episodes” the kids experience, instances of out of control behavior that often require psychiatric hospitalization.

In pursuit of this aim, Change House utilizes what is known as assertive community treatment, or ACT. “You put peers, their same age, same issues, and you let them work through their issues, by giving each other advice, and you being the overseer of it, stepping in to give that oversight/guidance,” explained Foster, a seasoned professional with over a decade of experience in this area.

The youth are referred to Change House by Maryland Choices, a nonprofit care management entity that combines funding from various government sources to create individualized service plans for children and families with intensive needs, according to their website. Maryland Choices provides overall case management, while Change House provides therapeutic services, extracurricular activities, and in-home and in-school intervention services when needed by the client.

The youth center houses a classroom, computer lab, gym, kitchen, laundry facilities, and a barbershop area where the kids get their hair cut each week. In addition to developing coping skills, the kids learn basic life skills such as cooking, regular grooming, doing their own laundry, ironing their clothes, doing chores, and improving their health and physical fitness.

On Tuesdays, Tarahn Harris and Sean House, implement a health and fitness curriculum they developed called DIPS (discipline, inspiration, physical fitness, structure), designed both to provide discipline and structure while combating health issues that afflict African-Americans like obesity and heart disease. “Some of the benefits include positive reinforcement,” said Harris, “and also showing them that there are other ways to have their needs met other than being physically or verbally aggressive.”

Getting the center’s clients to express their behaviors in healthy ways requires getting to the root of the behavior issues, according to Foster, who explained what drives some of the violent outbursts of the kids he works with. “It’s not fighting because it’s a learned behavior, it’s fighting because ‘I can’t cope with the work.’ ‘I can’t do it.’ ‘I’m not proficient enough,’ or ‘I don’t think I’m proficient enough.’ So with all of them it’s self-esteem, and that creates the behavior problem,” said Foster.

Brian McIver, a 10th grade Change House client, said the center has helped provide basic strategies, such as removing himself from situations where someone is making him mad, that enable him to better deal with challenges as they arise. The center’s team building activities were also a benefit to him. “We fed the homeless this one time and that was a group activity that really helped,” said McIver.

Roberto Alejandro

Special to the AFRO