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The Root Cause Blog
29 Apr

Meet Doc Wayne Youth Services, a 2014 Social Innovator

Written by Shelby Sih, Marketing and Communications Co-op

If you were to walk into one of Doc Wayne’s weekly Chalk Talk sessions, you would see a group of energetic youth using a makeshift gym to play basketball. It could be any rec league or a gym class, and yet beneath the surface, there’s much more at play. This group of kids playing basketball is, in fact, a group therapy session; there are clinicians and coaches and basketball is only a tool in their do the good® (DtG) curriculum, designed specifically to fuse sport and therapy to heal and strengthen youth through the power of sport. Executive Director David Cohen explains, “In many cases, traditional services may not have worked for all the kids, so we’ve found a way to connect with them on a different level by using sport as the hook.” Doc Wayne utilizes soccer, basketball, flag football, and softball in their programming. 

Doc Wayne Youth Services is a Root Cause 2014 Social Innovator for the “Breaking Down Barriers to Effective Mental Health Services” social issue track. Doc Wayne was founded in 2002; the current Executive Director, David Cohen, and Clinical Director, Rebekah Roulier, took over in 2011. Through the use of their do the good® curriculum, Doc Wayne is changing the way youth access mental health services by providing an innovative and researched approach.

At one of the weekly billable Chalk Talk sessions, the youth form a circle and practice passing the ball to each other. Instead of a traditional basketball practice, coaches work on skills while offering praise and building players’ personal skill sets, while attending to their individual goals and needs. Players are encouraged to “Fill The Tank,” or praise one another. This is one of many slogans DtG uses to incorporate Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) approaches into sports language that embeds the therapy into an active sports setting. Roulier explains, “Youth love our slogans and use them often. Through these slogans we teach DBT embedded into the context of sport.” 

These slogans help teach the components of Doc Wayne’s DtG curriculum, which is used both in Doc Wayne’s Chalk Talk group therapy sessions, offered in communities and inpatient programs around the Greater Boston Area and Eastern and Central MA, and in its Therapeutic Sports Program, which is a league format for youth in residential treatment facilities, group homes, therapeutic day schools, and other alternative schools. “Everything stems from our curriculum. It’s all about helping kids find their positive path in life without doing harm to others,” Cohen explains. Chalk Talk and the Therapeutic Sports Program work with youth with various mental illnesses such as Mood Disorders, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, youth on the Autism spectrum, youth involved with child welfare and juvenile justice systems, as well as youth in inpatient and outpatient programs who have been neglected, sexually trafficked, abused, or suffer from complex traumas. 

For many of these youth, treatment either hasn’t been accessible to them, or traditional talk therapy has been proven ineffective. Roulier points to research by Bessel van der Kolk (The Limits of Talk) that speaks about how our bodies can actually shut down when talking about past traumas, which could point to why Doc Wayne’s alternative approach has been so successful. Roulier explains that while a traditional therapist might present the skill to a kid as, “relationship effectiveness,” Doc Wayne is teaching the youth to “Build Your Team.” Their aim is the same: to teach pro-social skills and strengthen and lean on the team of people in their lives that can be helpful and supportive. Eventually this might lead to youth asking for help from a supportive adult when they need it most, or just acknowledging they have a support system behind them. Roulier notes, “All of our skills have ties to other settings such as the community or school.” The hope is that after practicing in the sports setting, these skills and lessons will expand and carry over into other aspects of their lives. Other slogans include “Show up”, “Fill the Tank”, and “Play to the Whistle”, which reinforce skills such as: positive communication, healthy relationships, problem solving, resilience, and perseverance. 

Not only is Doc Wayne providing youth with a toolkit of life skills, they’re also creating a space where these youth can feel safe and cared for, and just have fun. “These kids have lost several important developmental years” Cohen comments, “Really a lot of these kids are just looking for some adult figure they can lean on; someone they can trust.” Cohen points to a defining moment when a boy who had been struggling and was enrolled in both Chalk Talk and the Therapeutic Sports Program dropped out of the group. Three weeks later, he came back and apologized, asking to be taken back. “For a kid to actually ask to be part of group...that’s a big deal,” Cohen says. And while to some an apology might seem insignificant, Cohen would argue that “every step like that is a positive step in the right direction.” Perhaps these youth are so eager to be in Doc Wayne’s therapy because they’ve implemented programs that are not only open and supportive, but also fun and engaging....until now. Cohen notes, “If you want to engage these kids, you have to provide them with something that might be a little different, challenge the norm, and that’s what we do.” 

Cohen continues, “You can talk to these kids until you’re blue in the face, but you put a ball in their hands and the clinician or the adult becomes coach, then the discussions can be that much more open and powerful.” On the court, Cohen is no longer the Executive Director and Roulier is no longer the clinician: they’re both coach. Suddenly, by putting themselves on a more equal level with the youth and uniting them through the common ground of sport, the kids are more likely to open up and be more receptive to receiving the help they might need. 

Just because this approach is different doesn’t mean it’s any less effective. During the first basketball season that the DtG curriculum was put in place, an extensive observational assessment revealed it was increasing pro-social behaviors and reducing aggression and conflict. The results were later published in the Journal of Family Violence (JFV). In 2012, a follow-up assessment showed Doc Wayne’s sports-based services are as effective as traditional psychotherapy. Cohen comments, “the impact assessment in JFV legitimized the things we do. It was a big statement; a bold statement that said this isn't just a rec program, it’s much more than that.” 

With their proven approach, Cohen and Roulier’s biggest hope is to be able to expand their reach to more kids. Census data shows there are thousands of youth in Massachusetts alone who could benefit from Doc Wayne’s services. The potential for widespread impact through sports-based therapy is tremendous. Cohen comments, “This is a world I didn’t know before coming into this position. You think of this happening in other countries but you don’t think of it happening right here in your backyard.” Yet everyday young people are trafficked, abused, neglected, suffer from trauma, and are ostracized from society for having mental illnesses. The need for Doc Wayne’s programs here in Massachusetts, in America, and around the world is great. Despite the need, Doc Wayne’s internal capacity can only go so far. “We have a waitlist and we can’t accommodate all of the requests,” Cohen explains, “I’d like to find a way to never have a waitlist.” Roulier adds, “Their suffering is continuing because we don’t have the staff.”

Hopefully, being a Root Cause Social Innovator can help meet the demand. Cohen appreciates the awareness being a Social Innovator has brought the organization and only hopes this continues to grow as they go through the 25-month process. “Long term, our hope is that the network and the portfolio [from Root Cause] will take notice and maybe some doors will open and people will want to come through.” Cohen says. “We’re putting in an intensive handful of months and all that sweat; the hope is that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel and there will be a brighter future for the agency as a whole,” he remarks. 

Cohen and Roulier are both excited about the potential the future holds, especially after this experience with Social Innovation Forum. They hope the relationships with these youth will be long lasting and that they’ll see these kids they’ve worked with at age seven or eight graduating high school or college. “Wouldn’t it be something if what we do becomes a staple in the therapeutic world as something that transforms the lives of these kids who have been through such challenging situations and years in their lives?” Cohen muses. He adds, “I’m confident that over time people will see the value of sport and how powerful it can be. We create an inclusive and supportive environment where a kid can just be a kid.” And for many of these youth who have had so much taken away from them already, just being able to be a kid again can be transformative.

Our 2014 Social Innovator Showcase is May 7th. For more information, please contact Anna Trieschmann at atrieschmann@rootcause.org. To attend the showcase, please register here.