By Azita Ghafourpour, J.D.
As an Access Institute therapist, Mary Mykhaylova knows how important it is for children to feel safe. If they feel safe, they start to express themselves. If they start to express themselves, she can learn what’s going on in their lives, and can understand how to help them.
So when Mary started providing therapy to kids at Harvey Milk Academy in September as part of Access Institute’s school program expansion, she knew she had to find the right meeting space on campus.
She could have borrowed the office of a school staff member, but the space didn’t feel right. The school offered her one of the closets, but trying to transform it into a tiny meeting room wouldn’t do either. Then she spotted a tool shed in the playground. It was empty, dark, and cold. But Mary saw potential -- with some curtains, warm lighting, and the right toys, it could work.
Harvey Milk Academy had limited financial ability to help, but the principal managed to provide carpet, electrical wiring, and a space heater for the shed. Then Mary tapped into community resources, driving all over the city to gather the materials she needed. She collected a doll house, board games, and puppets. She stitched up some curtains and bought a tiny desk and chairs. She made it inviting. She made it fun. And she named it The Club House.
Why it is important to create this environment? The idea of coming to therapy can be daunting for kids. Some of them have very negative associations around meeting with adults, because they often already have had to meet with adults from various government agencies. So it was important for Mary to create a welcoming environment. “They need to know that when they enter this room, they’re going to spend time with someone that they can trust.”
She also feels it’s important to maintain consistency with the children – she meets with each child the same time each week, when it won’t interfere with the child’s academic instruction or favorite extracurricular activities.
Even the end of each session is consistent -- the last thing Mary has each child do before they leave is blow soap bubbles. “It’s a fun way to bring our time together to a close. And it makes sure the kids take some deep breaths before going about the rest of their day -- a type of playful meditation.”
Mary’s fellowship at the school eventually will come to an end, but The Club House will remain. “I’m really glad I was able to make a contribution to Harvey Milk Academy that will stay long after I leave,” she said. “That’s very special to me.”