Mercy Home’s Therapists: Helping Our Kids Heal, Ep. 4 of Around Our Home Podcast

Mercy Home’s Therapists: Helping Our Kids Heal, Ep. 4 of Around Our Home Podcast

– Welcome to Around Our Home, a show about the Impact Mercy Home for Boys & Girls has on kids and families in need in the Chicago Community. Each episode, you’ll hear informative interviews, as well as supportive tips and strategies that you can use in your daily life to become a happier, healthier version of yourself. This is Around Our Home, I’m Christine Nikolaj. My guests today are three of Mercy Homes therapists. Our therapists work with our kids to help them heal from trauma and other difficulties through psychotherapy and other innovations that support healthy regulation. Their role is key to helping our young men and women maintain good mental health, especially in the times of uncertainty we’re experiencing right now. My first guest is Eric, our therapist at Stay Home at the West Loop Campus. Stay Home service boys ages 11 to 16. Please start by kind of explaining your mercy on the journey.

– Yeah, so around 2018 I got out of grad school at San Diego State University with my Master’s in counseling and my fiance got a job opportunity out in Chicago. And I kind of did some quick background research on some jobs. And I came across Mercy Home for Boys & Girls as youth care worker. So you know, I kind of took the first thing snobbing, and I was promoted to Program Manager and then immediately after that Coronavirus started. And then here we are back at therapist and Bosco and Stay Home or 11 to 18 year olds.

– And what’s it been like working with our boys at the West Loop Campus?

– It’s been really fun. You know, every day you get to come in and you get to interact, and I’ve never had the same day twice, you know, these guys, it’s always something going on, you’re always working with a different guy.

– What’s the difference between residential therapy and private therapy?

– Oh, man, the biggest thing that comes to mind, right when you hear residential is is that these guys are here for the most part, most of their most of their days, their most here right five days a week, they’re expected to be here with two on the weekend where private therapy can be more outpatient, where you’re just checking in once an hour that’s taking up your time. Our kids are consistently living in therapeutic settings. And they’re always working on their goals and being challenged at every step of the journey. The biggest part is just the intensity and the level of intervention that we do here versus a private therapeutic setting.

– So what drew you to working with a specific age group that you do for therapeutic work?

– Working with kids has always been a part of my life and passion of mine, like in high school, I was doing Big Brothers Big Sisters in college. When I joined my fraternity, Alpha fraternity Incorporated, we did a lot of like mentorship programs, and then even in my internship in grad school, I was working with young kids. And so it’s just always found myself around the kids that have been in the same situations I’ve been in and having that influential role. In the process, honestly, it’s just been the time of the kids are trying to find out who they are and like, what they like and who they want to be. And so it just draws me that age and he’s got a teacher with young honestly.

– In your opinion, do you think it’s important to go into therapy your whole life? Like do you think it’s important to start at a young age to get kind of get used to talking to someone and opening up?

– I mean, you know, naturally we all know their own therapy. Really think about it right with our self care self soothing, we seek out family members, we seek out friends, just to offload on right. And we’re always consistent, like, you know, pouring that metaphor bucket, like you know, we’re pouring ourselves into people and have people receiving pour back into us. I just think it’s so important to have that unbiased opinion from somebody who, you know, has went to school and got those evidence based practices and those approaches that can just help you sort out your life. You know, I feel like sometimes when we go to our friends and our families, family members, we don’t really hear what we need to hear, we hear sometimes what they think we want to hear. And I just think that we need to take a bigger, I guess a bigger approach and a bigger standing how we’re taking care of ourselves mentally.

– I totally agree with that. Yeah, and I do agree that when you’re giving advice to friends, or getting advice from family that it is easier to kind of like sugarcoat things. But when you’re talking to a therapist, you’re raw and you’re more kind of telling the truth, just because.

– Yeah.

– It is an unbiased opinion.

– Absolutely, yeah, I just think it’s so great we give these kids early experience with their and the benefits of it because I feel that a lot of kids especially we talk about black and brown men and actually in women, their approach to mental health has been kind of a standoffish approach in my opinion. And what I’ve experienced I just see like me as a black male being able to be open him up to therapy and kind of give them a good maximum in general giving them a good feeling what there is, and how can help them is honestly a big foundational thing that can have moving forward,

– What’s your happiest memory of helping our kids through therapeutic skills?

– I think about the camping trip we do every year. And although doesn’t sign clinical, or like, you know, lay doing therapy skills, having to get into a different environment outside what they do every single day, whether it be Mercy Home or at their home, a lot of our kids don’t really get out of the confines of, you know, like a three block radius of their home, and they get to get out into the woods and get away from the city. And that’s a really good place when they start learning about themselves. And we talked about therapy, you talked about, like, kind of this, this journey of trying to find yourself right, and these kids be out in the woods and get away from the city life and their normal hustle bustle, they’re able to sit down and really have deeper conversations. And that’s probably the biggest therapeutic thing I’ve been able to do with these guys just have really just informal conversations about things that they want to be when they get older, and how they wanna get there. And now have that real, like structured, structured formal setting up therapy.

– What are some of the most common things our kids have anxiety about?

– I kind of think of, like three things, right? I think like basic needs like food, water, shelter, safety. I think like social needs, like where you have appear in action, you have self confidence. Some of the kids when they get older started dating, right? And then I think about, like, what’s going on right now on the current events, so that, you know, COVID, with like, social distancing, and distance learning, and then also, you know, you have social justice things going on. I think it’s like a mixed bag. Any kid we get mercy on, there’s no one one kid like, where’s it all they have all the insights, right? It’s a mixed bag between all those three parts? It’s kind of like, I mean, I go back to therapy. It’s always shape shifting and changing.

– Yeah, I agree. I think it’s great that they have a support system and a role model like you to look up to.

– I appreciate that yeah.

– How are you helping our kids cope with a pandemic?

– Oh, my goodness, I think they’re helping me more than helping them.

– That’s kind.

– You know, it’s just that it’s kind of like what we just talked about with that transparency, and just having honest conversations. I think one thing is that sometimes we kind of shield our kids and we think that we’re doing them justice when we can be doing them a disservice. I think it’s important to let you know, I’m not gonna give them information that they’re not gonna be asking for. But they asked those questions. I’m down to sit down with them. I’ve taught them about you know, what is Coronavirus and transparency and making sure you teach them safe practice.

– What advice can you give to people that are extroverts that can’t see their friends during this time?

– I would be one of those people, the biggest thing is just kind of being created. Of course, I think the biggest thing that I can think of is people are doing zoom happy hours with each other with family members. One thing is, you can kind of send care packages to each other. Just send little I think in the US stuff, you know, it’s just it’s being creative in understanding, like, what kind of other avenues do we have to interact and build our relationship in our communication, right? It doesn’t always have to be a physical one.

– I never thought about sending a care package to a friend. That’s actually a really good idea.

– Yeah, I mean and one thing I did, we did over the Mercy Home living situations, we started a book club, which was pretty cool.

– How long does it take for a kid to open up to you? Usually, I’m sure it’s different for each kid but.

– Yeah, for sure. I think it’s different for each kid, each therapist, we all have our different strengths. And I think one thing that I do pride myself on, I think that I’m strong is if you ask me who I work with is like my ability to connect. And, you know, I feel like I’m a kid still too. And it’s just really fun to sit down with them to just chill and build that strong bond and that strong foundation because I feel like without that therapy is really going to be tough to kind of, I guess, stimulate and grow. The kid has to build that trust with you in the family as well as to feel like you’re there for them and not just the kid. So I think that building rapport is really crucial for sure.

– What kind of specific tools do you give our kids that they can use after they leave work at home?

– Ideally, in a perfect world, you would want independent living skills, you would want coping skills, social skills, anger management skills, all that great stuff, right? But ideally, if I can get each kid that I interact with to know what it is to create and recognize healthy relationships, and maybe some skills about them regulating their emotions in the moment, I would be very happy.

– Thank you for talking to me and for being such an important part of our lives. I really do mean that I feel like being a therapist at Mercy Home must be really hard but rewarding. And yeah, I can’t thank you enough.

– I appreciate that, I really do.

– My next guest is Shelly, our therapist at Walgreen Home at the Walsh Campus. Walgreen Home serves girls ages 14 to 16. How did you get involved with Mercy Home?

– So I was working as a therapist in the western suburbs. It just kind of came to a point where I got sick of the commute, and I really wanted a change. And there were some openings at Mercy Home. And I applied for a couple of positions. And I started working in admissions as a as a clinician.

– And then how did you transition into becoming a therapist?

– The way that admissions works as the downtown campus, we do the interviews for the boys. And then the interviews for the girls are done at the Walsh Campus and my actual like second day on the job was on the Walsh Campus. So I kind of quickly had the opportunity to be at the Walsh Campus like my second day on the job. The campuses have like very different fields like both campuses are amazing. Like really quickly, I felt like I had worked here for 10 years. And it was like the second day. So I started feeling like a huge connection to being on the Walsh Campus right away. And I like every chance I could get I want it to be on the Walsh Campus just to kind of see everyone. And then around March, like February, March, I took a job as the Walgreen Program therapist. And that was like so exciting, you know like really like revved up for the move. And I did the job for two weeks. And then the entire city shut down because of Coronavirus .

– Oh, wow.

– So it was, it’s really been a crazy time,

– You can easily have the difference between being a therapist for girls compared to being a therapist for boys.

– I’ve actually worked with girls for a long time, even prior to coming to Mercy home. And a lot of the work, particularly trauma work with girls who are like in the adolescent teenager range is really related to physical and sexual abuse. And there’s just so much in working on healing and working on self esteem. And not that that doesn’t happen to boys, ’cause it definitely does. But it requires a lot of being very intentional and being delicate around those issues. Because they’re really painful.

– How long does it take for the average girl to trust you to open up to you about those issues?

– It can be, it can really depend, I can have a girl come in and like tell me everything and then completely shut down for six months. So it really depends on the youth, it depends on kind of how the story unfolds. I’m really into developing relationships with my clients and working on that rapport and trust. And so sometimes that also means, like disclosures on my part, and really helping them to understand why I care. And that I have, you know, a deeper and personal understanding of like what they’ve experienced and that I really want to support their healing. And getting to know someone in a telehealth platform is really different than spending time with them, and, you know, just kind of spending that like space with that person. But I think for the girls, it took a while I think it took longer because we weren’t together. And then also, you know, we just kind of had these limited times of the actual therapy time that we were spending together versus you know, this is a residential, so I would have seen them in the kitchen and or, you know, fitted with them and an activity and we would have just had like a lot more occurrences of interacting that we didn’t get because we were in the quarantine.

– Can you explain the transition of going from in person to telehealth with the girls and like how that all went?

– Yeah, so initially, it was difficult because there had to really be a transition in how they allowed therapists to interact with clients in a protected way. So like phone calls can be hacked, FaceTime, Google, Zoom, all those, you know, platforms can be hacked. So we had to figure out how on teams, we could connect with our clients, how to troubleshoot for any technical issues. So it was it, you know, there was a little alert learning curve there and I think it took about three or four weeks where that we just kind of started flowing and we were able to you know, jump on teams, and it wasn’t an issue.

– That makes sense, yeah, I feel like that must have been so hard for them going from a structured environment to having to be home all the time.

– Yeah, and it was really abrupt. It wasn’t like, okay, we’re planning a six week transition. It was like, okay, you’re going home later?

– Yeah, that was not easy.

– How are you helping our kids cope with a pandemic?

– So I’m really into expression, whether to be talking, crying or physical activity, so I’m really encouraging the girls to, you know, particularly what they are experiencing and how it feels and I’ll really want them to like be able to feel comfortable, communicating and not really like they have to hold it on or like there is something wrong because they are not kind of just nagging in with this.

– What are some coping strategies that you teach our kids to deal with stress and trauma?

– You know, sometimes, like, when people have experienced such difficult abuse or such difficult, like, neglect, that they don’t even kind of a tune to themselves or their own experience. Even something as simple as crying is, like, hard to do, you know. So I will really push the girls to like, go to the emotion and embrace it. I think that there’s something in giving yourself permission to feel your feelings that’s really liberating.

– I really like that. Feeling your feelings is really important. I think that’s a really important lesson to teach kids at an early age. What’s your happiest memory, if you’re working with our kids?

– I would have to say, just seeing laughter. And the girls, like when I think of like, you know, like the best moments, it’s like, everyone just kind of like cracking up and you know, just kind of those like unexpected moments where we all are just kind of on the same wavelength. And hearing the girls laugh and just express genuine joy. Those are just like priceless moments.

– Yeah, no, I get that. Thanks so much for joining me and for talking and for being open.

– just inviting me to do this and thinking about this stuff. And me we really, like so grateful that I work at Mercy Home and that I have kind of like such a dope. .

– My final guest is Eddie, our therapist at Kelly Home at the West Loop Campus. Kelly Home’s there’s boys ages 18 to 24. So would you tell me your background and how you became a therapist and kind of how you started working at Mercy Home?

– Okay, so I completed my BSW at Northeastern Illinois University.

– Okay.

– And then I went on to grad school at Loyola. I completed the Accelerated Program and when I was at Loyola, I completed an Internship with Heartland Alliance. And it was a therapeutic residential facility, specifically targeted towards youth who are 18 to 24. That’s when I knew I kind of had a passion to work with the youth, I enjoyed it so much, it was so much fun.

– Awesome, and then did you get hired directly as a therapist or?

– No, I got hired, I applied for a youth care worker to be a youth care worker. So I was first a youth care worker in Daly Home. And was it 2017. And then I applied for the therapist position, and Shelly Home in 2019. Yeah, so I was a youth care worker for about two years almost.

– And is that usually the trajectory of a therapist if they started as a youth care worker and then kind of work their way up?

– Yeah, like, it kind of depends. I think people with an MSW immediately apply to be a therapist, because that’s the qualifications that you need to become a therapist here. So I kind of came into the youth care worker role with my masters and I was kind of waiting for something to open up, something that I really wanted to do so that their principal position came up. So if there was a position that came up before that, like another therapists role, I probably would have applied for it. So I don’t really know if there’s any like trajectory around that are on like how long people usually wait and become a therapist. But for me, it was about like two years.

– And even though he said that if there was a therapist opening in the beginning that you would have done that? First, do you think it helps you be a youth care worker for a couple years before becoming a therapist?

– Oh, God, absolutely like residential is. So it’s like a different world working in a residential facility.

– So what’s been your favorite part about working with the kids remotely?

– I guess the best my favorite part about working with the youth remotely, acts have been just learning new ways to communicate via telehealth, I have no experience in like teletherapy whatsoever. So it’s really interesting to learn how the whole process works, and even have the youth experience what that looks like. It was just really difficult for me to have therapy with the kids over the iPad, you really aren’t able to read specific social cues and specific body language, which is really important, which there they are important aspects to like a therapy session.

– I didn’t even think about that with body language and stuff like that, being able to tell that as much over telehealth.

– Yeah, ’cause all you can see is like their face, right. So you know, really attuned to like the rest of their body. You know, that’s, like I said, it’s a really important aspect in the therapy session and what you can get out of it, you know, ’cause based on like the effect and the body language and social cues that they may be giving you it at that, ’cause that helps you navigate the session, right? So now having that present sometimes was a little bit difficult for me.

– How have things changed, since COVID happened as a therapist, and working with the kids?

– You have to kind of socially distance as much as possible. So I can’t be face to face with a youth not up close and personal, you know, you kind of have to give them their space. I like to host a lot of my sessions, kind of outside of my office, I like to take them on a walk or take them to the music room or the gym. And obviously, now we have to wear like masks here. So we can’t take off our masks to record music. So the music room isn’t really an option. Granted, we can still go to the gym, but a lot of these kids like to get involved and interacted with you by playing one on one or playing something. So that’s been pretty tough to have to limit yourself to what you’ll be doing in therapy with the guys. You know, right now, I’m just waiting on everything to clear so we could just go back to the way things were.

– Yeah, that makes sense. What’s unique about the therapeutic model of Mercy Home?

– Therapeutic model, that’s the ark model, I would say what’s unique about it is it doesn’t really use punishment, as a consequence is more so natural consequences. So it gives you the opportunity to kind of learn from their mistakes and accept the consequences that come with their mistakes, right? For example, I took a kid to the dentist, dentist didn’t go so well. He had to do a follow check up the next and natural consequences for you know, taking care of your teeth, you know, just simple stuff like that, that we try to teach the guys. And I like how the model really portrays that out. What I also think is unique about it is just the way it uses psycho education to help youth understand and explore their own emotions. Even after that, it helps kids develop and practice coping skills to help manage and practice self regulation. So not only are they able to understand their emotions, but they’re able to cope with them by practicing specific regulation skills. What I also like is that the model also asks caregivers to do the same to become attuned to their child’s emotions and behavior in order to respond instead of react. So it kinda helps them quote, unquote, raise their child in a more healthy and appropriate way.

– Yeah, I can totally see that. Do any of the kids that you work with before you started working with them? Have you noticed they had any fear about the stigma of therapy? Or were they like nervous about talking to a therapist?

– Definitely, I’ve had kids where our sessions are quiet about kids where minimum responses, one word responses, I’m the one driving the session. I think a lot of kids have the stigma of what therapy specifically entails. You know, like I see it on TV, they see you laying on a couch and they have these a therapist or a counselor asking you all these questions is trying to get to know you better trying to figure out what’s wrong with you. For me, I like to host my sessions in an environment my youth liking, right? So they’re not laying on a couch, maybe we start off with like a game or an icebreaker even, let the youth lead the sessions, you know, it’s their treatment. So I do my best to let them drive the therapy sessions. I think youth really have a stigma of what therapy is, especially if they have had previous therapists, right? They see you and they probably think okay, this is just like any other normal therapy session. I’m gonna sit down and this guy’s going to try to analyze my mind. I try to do my best to try to break that stigma.

– That’s good, I was gonna ask what’s it like, compared to seeing a private therapist, with residential therapist you’re seeing them like on a daily basis, sometimes just like in the halls, like what’s it like kind of navigating that relationship?

– Yeah, so it’s, I feel like it’s easier for me being a therapist in residential, because they can see me every day, they can literally come into my office right now and just start talking to me. So I think the rapport building on that level makes it easier for me. And it makes it easier for them, right? Because they know that they can always see me the next day, instead of maybe having to wait another week or another month, you know. So I feel like, they’re really appreciative of having somebody who they can literally talk to every day about anything that’s been going on.

– Yeah, that must be so nice.

– Yeah, for sure. I don’t have kids even stop me in the hallway, try to talk to me like right then and there. You know, so there’s a time and place for that, so.

– What’s it like working with boys at the West Loop Campus?

– To be honest, is great. You know, there definitely been some challenges, you know, surrounding trauma, family issues, personal issues. At the end of the day, it’s been really rewarding. You know, it’s great to be a part of, like the treatment and development.

– Do you work with their family members as well?

– Oh, yes, definitely do family work, we do family therapy a couple times a month, depending on the youth and their needs, and how involved they are with their family. My session is really consist of helping the parents understand their child’s behaviors, you know, their emotions and their needs, in order to help them raise their child in the healthiest ways, you know, and depending on the amount of trauma that the family experienced, that can be a little difficult. But for the most part, family therapy is all about trying to get the family, for example, the parent and the kid engaged. But I think the main goal of family therapy is to help both the child and the parent understand each other’s perspectives on things so that a solution can finally be implemented.

– That does sound really tough.

– Yeah, yeah, it’s tough. I mean, so they come to Mercy, to learn all these independent skills that are needed for them to function outside. So they come here during the week. They’re learning they’re doing everything they can, on the weekends, when they go home with their family, is when they should be implementing these skills. So also, family therapy can also be like an update on how the kid has been doing at home and things that they can be doing better and what they can be working on areas of improvement.

– I mean, like the ultimate goal and working with the families is to get the kids back home?

– Yes, yes, to try this and have them back home successfully. And if we transition them on their own, because of their own their own age, having the family there as a support system, at the end of the day. I think that’s the goal.

– Why do you think therapy is important?

– I think therapy is important because it’s an outlet for people to understand their own emotions and behaviors. It’s also beneficial to receive feedback on life improvement from mental health professionals, right? I mean, with Mercy Home being strength based, we kind of help our youth identify their own strengths, to give them the motivation, they need to make the changes on their own. It’s a really good outlet for people just share their feelings.

– I know a lot of boys feel like they shouldn’t show their emotions, how do you help our boys show their emotions and feel more comfortable doing that?

– A lot of these kids don’t know how to show their emotions, right? So I think that’s based on specific like therapeutic frameworks. I just think it depends on the kid and what he’s willing to do, right? ‘Cause he drives a treatment. So all we can do is provide options, and the youth kind of chooses what they wanna do you know.

– What’s been the most rewarding part of being a therapist at Mercy Home?

– To be honest, I would say seen the successes of treatment is probably the most rewarding part. Like noticing positive changes in behavior, having the youth be able to identify and understand their feelings, and even witnessing them using their basic independent living skills that they need to function independently on their own. It signifies that the work you’ve been putting them, with them is working.

– Well, thanks so much for joining me. This is really informative, and thanks for working with our kids and I know you’re a big part of their life. I appreciate it.

– Yes, thanks for having me, I appreciate it.

– Thanks for listening to Around Our Home. Special thanks to our guests Eric, Shelley, and Eddie for their insights about mental health and willingness to share their experiences as therapists at Mercy Home for Boys & Girls. Be sure to visit To join the conversation, access the show notes and read more about what’s going on Around Our Home on our blog. Don’t forget to follow us on social media by searching at Mercy Home. If you have any questions, please email us at Please like, subscribe and share this podcast with your colleagues, friends and family. Mercy Home for Boys & Girls is a solution for kids in crisis. And we hope this podcast will motivate you to support our mission. My name is Christine Nikolaj and this is Around Our Home.

Welcome to Around Our Home Podcast, a show about the impact Mercy Home for Boys & Girls has on kids and families in need in the Chicago community. Each episode you’ll hear informative interviews, as well as supportive tips and strategies that you can use in your daily life to become a happier, healthier version of yourself.

#4 – Mercy Home’s Therapists: Helping Our Kids Heal

In this episode, Christine Nikolich interviews three of Mercy Home’s therapists. Our therapists work with our kids to help them heal from trauma and other difficulties through psychotherapy and other interventions that support healthy regulation. Their role is key to helping our young men and women maintain good mental health, especially in the times of uncertainty we are experiencing right now.

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