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Grants help JFS offer kids healing through play
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Grants help JFS offer kids healing through play

Toys, games and talk help draw out issues of childhood trauma

Adults sometimes find it difficult to express their fear and anger in words — for young children, the task can be overwhelming. To ease the process, Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey developed a therapy program called Project Play.

Started 10 years ago in the wake of 9/11, it has proved so popular in dealing with a range of problems that a long waiting list had formed. Now, thanks to two grants — one from the van Ameringen Foundation and one from the Turrell Fund of New Jersey — the program can be expanded to fit the need.

The new grants (JFS declined to share the figure) will help cover salary costs for added time from licensed social workers with experience in play therapy.

“We are now able to expand Project Play and serve additional children and families with this unique and effective type of therapy,” said JFS associate director Carol Billet-Fessler.

Toys and games were always used in therapy for children, Billet-Fessler said, but the JFS program was formalized after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001 to help local children and their families traumatized by their losses. Designed for children from age two to 11, it offers non-stressful ways for them to show what’s troubling them.

With funding from The Hyde and Watson Foundation, The Grassmann Fund, and The Union Foundation, all of New Jersey, the agency equipped three bright, welcoming play therapy rooms at its Westfield Avenue headquarters in Elizabeth. They contain an array of toys, dolls, games, puppets, paints, clay, and other items.

“As the child plays, the therapist begins to recognize themes and patterns of play, or ways of using the materials that are important to the child. Over time, the therapist helps the child make meaning out of the play and their positive relationship provides dynamic growth and healing for the child,” Billet-Fessler said.

Children are referred to Project Play with a range of issues, from anxiety over parents’ divorce or the death of a parent to school phobias and trauma due to emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse.

Some children use dolls to reveal abuse or neglect.

“By acting out a traumatic experience, a child can change or reverse the outcome in the play activity,” she said. “Modeling clay provides a safe outlet for aggressive feelings by pounding, poking, and squeezing. Game playing requires self-discipline — waiting for one’s turn, cooperation and obeying rules — and can help a child master frustration and increase self-control.

“Drawing pictures may help a child to externalize fears on paper and also portray an anticipated positive mood at a future time when the child no longer feels afraid,” said Billet-Fessler.

The therapists also meet with the children’s parents or guardians to promote better understanding and communication in the family. They might also involve school staff and other community organizations.

This all makes the program a good match for the New York City-based van Ameringen Foundation, founded in 1950 by Manhattan industrialist Arnold Louis van Ameringen to support programs in mental health. “We like to help young children get straightened out,” said its executive director, Eleanor Sypher. “This seems like an effective program. It has a long waiting list, so evidently it’s popular.”

Both grantors provided support for JFS in the past, the van Ameringen Foundation for a consulting child psychiatrist and the social work team, the Turrell Fund for its New Jersey After 3 program.

Those wanting to inquire about play therapy services can call the JFS intake coordinator at 908-352-8375.

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