“Nourish yourself as you would a small child.”
I have a dear friend who is a magical fairy, and her name is Claire Bilbao. When we first met, her hair was dyed the colors of the rainbow and I’ll always remember her this way. Claire’s gleaming personality and wondrous spirit is contagious, perhaps because she has this uncanny ability to understand and communicate with children in a way that most people do not. She has so many resources at her fingertips to foster a supportive environment for children to heal and grow, with a Bachelor’s degree in Nutrition as well as Master’s in School Counseling and Expressive Arts Therapy. But more than that, I think she connects with children so effortlessly because she is able to perceive and respect their innate, individual wisdom.
Most recently, Claire was a school counselor at a rural Appalachian elementary school in one of the most impoverished counties in North Carolina. Many of the children faced unstable home environments, family substance addiction, neglect, and/or abuse, either physical or sexual. She often felt overwhelmed by the traumas that these young children were experiencing on a daily basis, and she wondered what she could offer them.
The first step was creating a relationship of trust with the students. One method that the faculty organized was an invitational lunch group, suggesting that this was a way for kids to interact with other students with whom they normally wouldn’t spend much time. Students selected for lunch groups had teachers who suspected some type of challenging home situation. In hopes that having lunch together might make the students feel more comfortable with their teachers and counselors, the school was creating the perfect opportunity for the kids to reach out for help if they needed it. And this is exactly what happened when a 5th grade boy confided in Claire that he had been physically abused for the past four years.
After establishing a certain level of trust, a conversation was the second step to helping students move forward. For example, Claire and her supervisor, in accordance with the Department of Social Services, located after-school care for the 5th grader to avoid extended periods at home alone with his abuser. Likewise, after learning about another 5th grader’s high anxiety levels caused by parental abandonment and a verbally abusive older sibling, Claire taught the student breathing exercises to effectively lessen her anxiety while also managing the tendency to bully her classmates.
In our conversation, Claire repeatedly mentioned the vital role of self awareness in the students’ healing process. She hinted at how surprised she was at how accurately these kids could discern that their experiences were not good, and what they were dealing with was not normal. They knew that they needed to ask for help, but the hardest part was finding a good time and place to do it. Claire wondered if it was possible that the children already inherently knew what they needed. So she conducted an experiment, prompting students with the question:
“What reminder do I need to live a happier and healthier life?”
Below are responses by two students who both faced far from ideal home lives and were separately caught stealing. Claire enthusiastically declares her amazement at how these young kids could synthesize multiple counseling sessions into one clear and positive statement.
Claire came to realize that you can’t fix anything and people already know what they need. She learned that it is human necessity to be seen and heard, and to be allowed to feel what we are feeling. And when this happens, people can make changes for themselves. The way she talks about her approach seems to be less intrusive than what most people might associate with the role of counselors. Rather than behaving as an authority on another person’s experiences, thoughts, and desires, she almost acts as a facilitator, allowing the students to conduct their own healing.
In line with this month’s theme, Claire expressed how ‘Boundaries’ was a prominent challenge in her work. She struggled not only with the number of high needs children, but also the limitations of a school system in such a rural and conservative setting. She discovered the value in self-care, and considers setting boundaries to be one of the highest forms of self care, letting a person create space to take charge of your life and let go of being a victim. When asked how to sustain the act of serving others, Claire responds with “Know yourself and create the environment.”
So, I guess it’s true… We all know what we need.
by Maria Borghoff