Education

Letter to the editor: Hunts Point shares experiences with African counterparts

Courtesy of Unitas

Students at St. Athanasius School with a delegation of African peacemakers.

Unitas Therapeutic Community, a community mental health treatment and prevention organization in Longwood, recently hosted an intercultural exchange on peacemaking intervention with a group of peacemakers from Uganda and Rwanda, at our headquarters at St. Athanasius School, 830 Southern Blvd.

Because of its reputation as a center for conflict resolution and community peacemaking, Unitas was selected to host the event by the Smith College School for Social Work, which received a special grant from the Massachusetts State Dept. of Cultural Affairs, to bring African educators, clergy, community leaders and artist peacemakers to the US.

I founded Unitas in 1968 as a prevention and treatment program for youth and families undergoing emotional and behavioral stress while I was practicing psychotherapy at Lincoln Medical Center. Discouraged by the lack of response to formal mental health services for alienated youth within a hospital setting, I took to the streets to help those young people form bonds with one another near their homes and hangouts. I then enlisted their cooperation in having them help each other and other neighborhood children at risk. Many of these young people learned how to become “caretakers” for one another and to resolve interpersonal challenges through negotiation, rather than by acting out through violence.

I created “healing,” or therapeutic circles on the streets, and then in schools, by bringing youth in those settings together to reflect on ways to get along better with one another and to learn how to settle their differences peacefully.

During the recent intercultural exchange, we led our guests on a walk around Longwood and Hunts Point. Orlando Pizarro, an “original child” from Unitas during its early years, and veteran community organizer John Calderone, provided historical overviews of the disaster that was the old South Bronx, and the revitalization that has occurred since then as the result of new housing and school projects that focus on a demographic that would have been left behind a generation earlier.

On our route, we stopped at the Bronx Studio School for Writers and Artists at Casita Maria on Simpson Street, a prime example of some of those efforts to ensure that those who may have once been forgotten no longer are. A presentation at the school by school staff and student leaders, orchestrated by Raquel Barrett, an associate director at Unitas, demonstrated efforts within this system to reach out to marginalized students to help them overcome alienation.

Back at Unitas home base at the St. Athanasius School, I spoke about the program’s evolution from a street clinic to an organizational structure that now includes those school-based interventions and community outreach initiatives. I showed a tape of an original Unitas program on Fox Street during the 1980s, depicting the program’s development from neighborhood caretaker system for youth to peer social support system, as an alternative to the standard mental health care system. I demonstrated our “therapeutic community circle” model, during which our African visitors and local students—a group of about 40, in all—collaborated in a healing intervention.

The day ended with a group reflection, where our guests provided encouraging feedback about what they had learned in Longwood and Hunts Point. They told us that the visit excited them so much that they plan to apply similar models when they return home to their countries in Africa. One of the visitors said, “This was the best experience for me of our whole visit to the United States.”

For additional information on Unitas, click on unitastcinc.org or call 718 589-0551. Unitas is under the administration of Dr. Ian Amritt, executive director and Richard Sherman, board chair. Dr. Eismann can be contacted directly at edoc95@gmail.com

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