Tackling Trauma as a Public-Health Issue: Why This Organization’s Trauma-Informed Approach to Therapy is So Effective

In 1887, with Chicago’s population booming, the streets teemed with homeless, abandoned and neglected boys and young men. They were drawn to the burgeoning industrial mecca by the prospect of work and fortune, but many found exploitation and crime instead. The Rev. Dennis Mahoney outlined a solution for boys like these — a safe home that would shelter them from the chaos of the urban jungle while preparing them to become healthy and contributing citizens.

Since it opened its doors, Mercy Home for Boys & Girls has helped tens of thousands of young men and women, and this year celebrates its 130th anniversary. Today Mercy Home provides supports to more than 700 youth and families in three locations — a home for boys in the West Loop, a home for girls in Beverly/Morgan Park, and a supportive housing community in South Shore for former Mercy Home residents.

Throughout its 130 years of growth and evolution, Mercy Home’s mission has remained the same — to save children’s lives and give them tools they need to build promising futures. In addition to the basics of food, clothing, shelter, safety, and round-the-clock care, Mercy Home has always provided its young people with access to a good education and helped them chart a career path. In the Home’s early years, youth learned trades like bricklaying, candle making, and operating a printing press on which they produced the “Waifs Messenger,” a magazine that continues to generate support for the Home to this day.

Today, led by the Rev. L. Scott Donahue, Mercy Home helps its young people explore modern vocations in fields such as information technology, hospitality, logistics, business and more. Some former residents go into careers like law enforcement or social work in order to give back to the community — a value on which the Home places a strong emphasis.

No matter what career a child ultimately chooses, Fr. Donahue knows that education forms the foundation for success. That’s why he expanded and strengthened Mercy Home’s academic programs, an effort that has produced a graduation rate of 100 percent of its high school seniors for the past several years. This is significant given how far behind in school children usually are when they arrive at Mercy Home. Many had already stopped attending class altogether, either out of a sense of frustration or even the fear of violence.

But with the help of generous donors, Mercy Home’s youth are able to attend one of more than 50 schools in the area, ensuring each individual’s academic needs are addressed appropriately. Meanwhile, the Home offers them an array of resources like tutoring, art therapy and even financial literacy to support success in the classroom. Last year, in recognition of Fr. Donahue’s commitment to education, St. Xavier University President Christine Wiseman presented Fr. Scott with an honorary doctorate.

Mercy Home in Chicago

What has also evolved over the years has been the Home’s model of therapeutic care. Mercy Home offers treatment that accounts for the long-term impact of traumatic events that children experience, such as abuse, neglect, community violence, and other adversities.

The Home’s clinical director Emily Neal says that this development is possible because of scientific evidence of altered brain functioning due to early abuse and neglect.

Where practitioners once used psychological, emotional, and behavioral terms to diagnose the effects of trauma, Neal says, “There’s been a shift from, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to, ‘What’s happened to you?’ I think this really sums up what trauma-informed care is all about.”

She credits the Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACE Study), conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as a catalyst for this shift. The landmark study, published in 1998, demonstrated a direct correlation between the number of adverse childhood experiences — like abuse, neglect, and trauma — to health and social problems later in life.

“It became indisputable that family issues and conditions causing stress among people was actually a public health issue,” Neal says. “That warranted funding, focus, and attention from government and larger agencies that had capacity to determine the direction of research.”

These new perspectives gave way to advances in the clinical field of trauma-informed care.

“What’s been most innovative is the attention we are now paying to the human body and other forms of processing, apart from talk therapy,” Neal says. “Sometimes language centers shut down when the nervous system is activated. Sometimes there aren’t words to describe what happened to you or to articulate the feelings and impacts associated with trauma.”

Neal adds, “Some of these more sensory or body-based interventions we’ve been exploring through the Trauma Center and through the Child Trauma Academy are really innovative.” Interventions include tools that interact with the various senses, such as movement therapy, sand-tray therapy, weighted blankets, music, and scent. “We’re beginning to understand how occupational therapy principles can be applied to trauma survivors and give kids new ways to manage their energies.”

The Home has built its current model of care on a framework called ARC, which stands for Attachment, Regulation, and Competency, and was developed by the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute of Massachusetts. To support the greater therapeutic environment, Mercy Home makes ARC training a requisite for all of its staff, even those who work in administrative, maintenance, or other areas outside of direct youth care.

“Because this is their home,” says Fr. Donahue, “it’s incumbent upon all of our coworkers to be aware and sensitive to the traumas our young people have suffered as we interact with them day to day. That awareness makes this a more welcoming home where our young people can feel safe and secure.”

Neal and coworker Jeremy Karpen are now trained and credentialed to consult with youth care agencies across the country to help them apply the ARC model. In addition, Mercy Home staff is training educators in several Chicago schools on how to recognize the signs of trauma in students.

This kind of outreach and education is one way that Mercy Home seeks to expand its mission beyond its walls in order to help more children. Another is its work to help address violence in Chicago. Currently, the Home is working with Cardinal Blase Cupich and the Chicago Archdiocese on an initiative to address violence that has grabbed so many recent headlines and that has been a significant source of the trauma impacting the children who seek help at Mercy Home. In his preface to a book authored by Fr. Donahue titled “Years of Mercy,” Cardinal Cupich noted, “It is easy to understand why Mercy Home enjoys such a strong reputation in the community for putting the Gospel into action so that no one is left behind.”

Mercy Home continues to grow and innovate to help more children and families, but it has only been possible because of generous donors who provide it with nearly 100 percent of its operating funds. In addition to direct mail and digital donors, major gifts and gift planning, corporations and foundations, and several other successful fundraising programs, Mercy Home has had a robust annual lineup of fundraising events.

Its biggest is slated for Oct. 14 at the Chicago Marriott Downtown — the 26th annual Ringside for Mercy’s Sake. The black-tie gala features luxury live and silent auctions, dinner, dancing to the City Lights Orchestra, and live from the middle of the hotel’s Grand Ballroom, eight amateur boxing matches between employees of the financial industry. Last year the event was co-chaired by Highland Park resident and Mesirow Financial chairman Richard Price, a member of Mercy Home’s Board of Regents, while its live auction was conducted by Bill and Giuliana Rancic.

Mercy Home: Bill and Giuliana Rancic
Bill and Giuliana Rancic

Another board member, CBS2 Chicago anchor and reporter Jim Williams, has emceed the event since its early days. “It’s my favorite night of the year,” says Williams. “And it’s been such a joy for me personally to watch it get bigger and better every year to help provide a real home for needy kids.” In addition to his role as emcee, Williams creates the videos shown at the event.

Each spring, a luncheon at the Hilton raises funds for the Home’s educational programs while celebrating the academic achievements of its youth. Entering its 16th year, the Graduates’ Luncheon is hosted by Mercy Home’s Leader Council, which was founded in 2002 by then Chicago Public Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey, and is attended by about 800 guests.

“We often say how Mercy Home changes these children’s lives, and it does,” says Dempsey, who currently serves as president at DePaul College Prep. “But I have also found in getting to know them and hearing their stories, their triumphs over adversity, that they have truly changed me for the better. They’ve changed all of us who have had the privilege to work with them. I’m so grateful for that.”