Guided through stress: Chicago intervention program mentors youth past poverty-related trauma

By Zack Fishman
Medill Reports

On a sunny afternoon in early March, two graduate students, Elizabeth Sargent and Diana Chaidez, supervise an after-school program for 10 students in the school library at Wentworth Elementary School, located on Chicago’s Southwest Side in Englewood. The sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders sit at round tables, accompanied by a similar number of college undergrads. Sargent calls three students to the front and gives each a water bottle, two with carbonated contents, one flat. She then asks the seated students what stresses them out.

Hands fly up as both the younger and older students provide answers: hard tests, yelling parents, angry friends. With the mention of each stressful experience, the students at the front shake their bottles. “If you have a fight with your family and you’re worried about failing a class, you might feel really stressed inside, like you’re about to explode,” explains Sargent, a psychology Ph.D. student at Loyola University Chicago.

Chaidez, a psychology Ph.D. candidate at Adler University, takes a trash can and gives the students in front specific instruction on how to open their bottles. The first opens his quickly, causing a carbonated eruption similar to an angry or frustrated breakdown. The second carefully unscrews her bottle, but the plain water sits motionless, suggesting the emotional numbness that can come with repressed feelings. The third student opens hers slowly to create a prolonged fizz, representing a healthy release of emotions.

Sargent and Chaidez make sure the class understands the metaphor: Dealing with shaken bottles of soda can be like managing stress.

The demonstration occurred during a weekly meeting of the Cities Mentor Project, a DePaul-led youth intervention program that provides mentorship to Chicago adolescents living in urban poverty. Each Wentworth student is overseen by graduate supervisors and paired with an undergraduate student from DePaul, who teaches them stress-management skills, keeps them accountable for weekly goals and acts as a reliable source of listening and support. DePaul psychology professor Kathryn Grant founded the Project, which rests on more than a decade of research that identify the unique stress caused by poverty, community violence, racism and other external pressures. Grant awaits scientific confirmation of the project’s effectiveness, but her hope is to lend support informed by research to the thousands of Chicago children undergoing the burdens of poverty and violence.

Poverty, stress and trauma

Eleven miles north of Wentworth Elementary, Kathryn Grant’s office resides in Byrne Hall on DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus; potted plants and afternoon sunlight fill her workspace. As the daughter of an American missionary, Grant spent most of her childhood in Sao Paulo, Brazil. She recalls visiting the nearby city of Campinas and seeing “really, really, so obvious” poverty in Campinas: People went door to door asking for food, and young children holding babies begged cars stopped in traffic for money. “[The inequality] contributed to my passion and my sense of responsibility for trying to make the world a tiny bit more equal,” says Grant, now 53, “because the world is so unfair.”

Grant earned her Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Vermont, where she was took a class taught by George Albee, a pioneer of community psychology. Albee researched how outside influences affect the wellness of populations, rather than focusing on the circumstances of individuals. “We in psychology were pulling people out of the river that were drowning one at a time,” Grant says, sharing a metaphor from Albee, “but what we really need to do is go up to the top of the river to see who’s pushing them in.”

Seated in her DePaul office, Kathryn Grant explains how stressful experiences affect communities in urban poverty. Lists of coping strategies line her chalkboard. (Zack Fishman/MEDILL)

Grant brought community psychology to DePaul, where she became a professor in 1996 and began research that would eventually become the Cities Mentor Project. She and her colleagues studied the stressful experiences (or “stressors”) of African American adolescents living in impoverished Chicago communities. Her research found many poor black youth undergo what she calls “complex trauma,” a confluence of stressors — such as troubled families, community violence and racism — that overlap into a continuous emotional burden. She considers poverty “the mother of all stressors” for harming many aspects of a person’s life, contributing to issues like worsening health, high divorce rates and a lack of educational resources.

“Complex trauma is something that is distinct from a single traumatic event, like a near-death experience in a car accident,” Grant says. “Complex trauma tends to not be time-limited and tends to be messy, often involving multiple stressors.”

To cope, many young people avoid dealing with these stressors, which then fester over time, says Chantelle Miller, another project supervisor at Wentworth and a psychology Ph.D. student at DePaul. Some find distraction in academic or social overachievement, but they often overwhelm themselves with the additional stress. Yet applying normally effective coping strategies, such as directly addressing a source of stress, might be counterproductive. “For example, if they try to engage with their community violence, they might be putting themselves in danger,” Miller says.

Chantelle Miller participates in a discussion at a Cities Mentor Project meeting. (Zack Fishman/MEDILL)

In a key finding, Grant learned that some students managed their stress better than others. The reason? They had at least one nurturing adult in their lives, whether a parent or teacher or other figure. An adult provides emotional support and guidance through a challenging world, but communities like Englewood are short on grown-ups: Because of departing job-seekers and high incarceration rates, Englewood has 30% fewer adults for every child than the Chicago average, according to a 2019 CMAP data profile of the neighborhood.

“That’s where the mentorship model comes in,” Grant says. “If we are able to put one positive, supportive adult in their life in the form of a mentor — whatever that means for different spaces — then these youth have better chances of engaging and positive coping mechanisms that are realistic for their cultural background and context.”

Learning to cope

After 12 years of research and dozens of publications by Grant and her team, a pilot program of the Cities Mentor Project launched in 2008 with a grant from the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. Grant and her team gathered data and feedback to revise the Project over time, she says, and it has operated in in its most recent form since 2018.

The Project runs after-school programs in three elementary schools, all in Chicago neighborhoods with high poverty and large African American populations — Wentworth Elementary in Englewood, and Joplin and Cook elementary schools in nearby Auburn Gresham. The students check in with their mentors at weekly Wednesday meetings, where they learn about healthy stress and emotion management under the guidance of supervisors. The project also hosts open-ended sessions on the other weekdays in community safe spaces, like a nearby church and the local library’s media center.

But the Wednesday check-ins are the most educational — and the most popular. “Wednesdays rule,” says Iya, an 11-year-old Wentworth student, “because you gotta show respect to everybody, even who you don’t like.”

Wentworth and DePaul students at a Cities Mentor Project meeting watch a video about being a community leader. (Zack Fishman/MEDILL)

At Wentworth, the mentors greet the students outside the school library before everyone gathers around tables. The room rustles with chatting and laughter until the supervisors focus it toward the afternoon’s curriculum. The syllabus contains a variety of instructional and creative activities: One day, the students cut words and photos from magazines to represent themselves in a collage; on another, they watched the Mufasa’s saddening death in “The Lion King” before using relaxing smells and colorful slime to practice self-soothing. Some students bring their outside stress to the Wednesday sessions, and they often speak with their mentor or supervisors in hushed, trusting conversations.

“A lot of the students very clearly do not feel that they have an accessible adult to talk about certain emotional things or general frustrations with,” Miller says. “I find it very comforting that they trust us to talk about anything from ‘I don’t like my teacher’ to ‘I’m feeling really sad because I haven’t seen my mom in a year.’”

Many student participants say they enjoy the Cities Mentor Project and appreciate the emotional support their mentors provide. Twelve-year-old Destiny, who joined after hearing how her sister liked the program, has grown comfortable sharing her feelings. “There’s other ways to control your emotions than getting mad and when you come here, and you can always express your feelings to other people,” she says. And Toshonne, who initially felt shy at the first meeting, now views the group as family and her mentor as a best friend. “We bond with our mentors,” says Toshonne, 13. “If I’m going through something, I can tell her, and she tells me if she’s going through something.”

The mentors also draw benefits from the experience. The Project provides real-world experience for the many college students who study psychology, but they also find joy in their mentoring relationships. Most keep in touch with their student throughout the week over texting and otherwise stay involved in their lives; one mentor planned to attend their student’s dance recital.

Mentors are also exposed to the city’s drastic inequality. They attend DePaul in Lincoln Park, one of Chicago’s wealthiest neighborhoods, and participating in the Project highlights its contrast with the poorer conditions in Englewood. “It’s rewarding to open your eyes to the privilege that I experience versus the life that they’re living,” says Tony Previti, a DePaul junior studying psychology. “What they’ll say so casually might destroy me, like, ‘My friend died.’”

The Project also helps the elementary school students engage with their community through social advocacy projects. This spring, the Wentworth kids plan to make a movie documenting the Project and other resources they use in Englewood and sell tickets to raise money for the homeless. They will fill all the movie production roles, from acting to editing; one student is writing a rap to perform for the film’s opening music. It’s through efforts like these that Grant believes these students can address the daunting stressors facing their communities.

Despite its origins in academic research, the Project isn’t fully funded by research grants, says budget manager John McGill. Instead, the Project leaders organize fundraising events, such as an annual 5K/8K Superhero Run in Lincoln Park, to cover the costs of programming. “For every $120 in funding that we get, we could potentially cover a new child to come into our program for an entire year,” says McGill, who has conducted research with Grant since 2008 and is also a supervisor at Joplin. He notes that $120 is the minimum cost for a participant — students who take part in activities beyond Wednesday meetings require up to $1,000 in funding. “Every dollar for us does matter.”

Cities Mentor Project participants show off their medals from the 5K/8K Superhero Run, an annual fundraiser for the project. (Courtesy of Cities Mentor Project)

The biology of stress

For the last two years, researchers have been gathering data to evaluate the effectiveness of the Cities Mentor Project’s teachings. Chantelle Miller, the Wentworth supervisor from DePaul, plans to analyze surveys and feedback forms completed by students to measure their psychological and emotional improvements.

In the meantime, a research center at Northwestern University, Foundations of Health, is investigating how the Project changes the physical well-being of participants. The lab, led by psychology professors Edith Chen and Gregory Miller and funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, is working alongside Grant’s team to collect a swath of data from both elementary school students and mentors. Over the next three years, the researchers  will assess the students’ blood pressure, cholesterol levels, sleep and other vitals as well as study their emotional well-being, says Robin Hayen, project coordinator at Foundations of Health. “The main goal here is to look at all these different lenses of the socio-economic effects on health,” she says.

The lab will also test whether the mentor relationship and safe spaces provided by the Cities Mentor Project — and not only the stress-coping curriculum — improves the health of the students. Kids in an active control group are given the same materials as those in the Project but aren’t assigned an undergraduate mentor. If their bodies react differently than their mentored classmates, the Northwestern researchers will note this. But what exactly are they looking for?

The human body has several mechanisms for mitigating stress, says Emma Adam, a stress psychology scientist at Northwestern, but those defenses can be overwhelmed. Adam is not involved with the Foundations of Health study, but she worked with Grant on a study showing that community violence disrupts sleep and raises stress levels in adolescents. To measure stress, Adam and other researchers look at levels of cortisol, often dubbed the stress hormone. Much like adrenaline, cortisol puts the body on alert with higher heart rate and blood pressure, but it kicks in over minutes rather than seconds and is only activated by negative experiences. “If you’re walking down a forest path and you see a squiggly thing on the ground, you would go, ‘Ah!” and your heart rate would increase and your adrenaline would go up,” Adam says. If it were a stick, your adrenaline would go down, and your heart rate with it. But, “if you suddenly assessed it was a poisonous snake and a real threat, then your cortisol might start to kick in.”

She adds, “There’s a daily rhythm in cortisol: It’s high in the morning and low at night, and that helps to give you your get up and go for the day and then shut down at night. Under chronic stress, you have people waking up with lower levels and going to bed with higher levels.”

Northwestern psychology professor Emma Adam studies how different sources of stress affect adolescents’ personal development. (Courtesy of Steve Drey)

An overwhelmed cortisol system leads to groggy mornings and restless evenings that disrupt sleep, a crucial stress manager. An accumulation of stressful days and sleepless nights can exhaust the cortisol system. This state, known as “hypervigilance,” often occurs in youth living in urban poverty. Kids in these conditions may also feel threatened by racism and other sources of social isolation. “We were evolved to be part of a social group, in part because we were more likely to survive if we were working together as a group, so social exclusion isn’t just an emotionally uncomfortable state — it’s dangerous, in an evolutionary standpoint,” Adam says. Hypervigilance leads to high stress levels and impaired education: “Your learning occurs when you’re in safety mode, not when you’re in threat mode,” she says.

The Foundations of Health will measure similar effects in their health evaluation of the program. “I would place my bets on that feeling of belonging and specialness as the thing that is most regulating for biology and for health,” Adam says. “If you’re just reading about what to do, you’re less motivated to enact those strategies than when there’s someone else that you’ve learned to trust.”

A hope of expansion

After every Wednesday session, the students write down how they’re feeling on a short survey before leaving the library for home. Some students wait inside for their parents to arrive, while others bike home; one girl roller-skates away from the school, a Starbucks coffee cup in hand. For all the research and ambition behind its organizers, the Cities Mentor Project can’t fix the stressors that afflict many of these students in the rest of their lives; it can only provide the tools and support to tolerate and address the problems. Nevertheless, the project members hope to expand the project to more children who need their help.

Expansion depends on the evaluations from Miller and the Foundations of Health, which won’t be completed for a few more years. But Miller is encouraged by her findings so far. “I think it’s going to add a lot to understanding how youth with complex trauma are dealing and coping with it, and how mentoring can be the primary tool for that,” she says.

But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Project has had to retreat to all-digital instruction. Miller says the education now takes the form of instructional videos created by supervisors and shared with elementary school students. The team is also reaching out to students’ families to provide internet resources and to help them cope with the effects of the coronavirus. “Many supervisors and students have been personally affected by COVID-19, and yet they continue to show up and work hard to reach our students so that they know that we have not forgotten about them during this time of ‘social distancing,'” Miller says.

Still, if the analyses give the green light for expansion, Grant says she wants eventually to work with other city colleges to open after-school programs across the Chicago Public School system, which would potentially spread her stress-management strategies to thousands or tens of thousands of students. “The dream would be to expand to other universities,” Grant says. “Ideally, every kid in Chicago who was interested and had the need would be able to have a university mentor.”

Photo at top: Wentworth Elementary School student Tay’vihanna and her mentor Adamaris Saavedraand hug after a Wednesday meeting of the Cities Mentor Project. (Zack Fishman/MEDILL)