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"My Schweitzer project is born out of the hope that women and their children can heal from the effects of trauma and move forward together," Seidel says.

When she graduated from college in 2006, Laura Seidel made a unique choice: she became a certified foster parent and spent several years serving as a full-time mother to a total of 17 children—many of whom had been traumatized by domestic violence and/or had special needs (including a 3-year-old with cerebral palsy).

Now, as a Schweitzer Fellow and an occupational therapy student at Boston University’s Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, Laura is continuing her work to strengthen fractured families. Over the past year, she has worked with the Elizabeth Stone House—which provides transitional housing for victims of domestic violence—to expand opportunities for healthy and developmentally appropriate recreational activities (access that was lost along with these women and children’s permanent housing). Read on to learn more.

Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

After college, I spent two years working as a therapeutic foster parent for children ages birth through 6. Without a doubt, this was the most challenging and educational experience of my life: it has forever changed me.

I learned how important activity, play, and routine are in helping traumatized children to heal. Four years later, I can still clearly remember all of the silly yet hugely important pieces of bathtime ritual and car rides that helped my foster kiddos to feel safe and secure. I also learned that one of my strengths is an ability to connect and empathize with kids from the hard places who many others may dislike or avoid because they can be so rough around the edges.

As a foster mama, I was often frustrated and angry when I saw the abandonment, neglect, and abuse that my children had experienced. Over time, I started to dig deeper and noticed a striking pattern in the mothers of my foster children: they overwhelmingly were young and poorly educated, with limited social support, few resources, and a long history of violence and trauma in their own lives.

As I loved and cared for children who grieved the often permanent loss of their first families, I began to long for another solution. I started to question if there could be another way; if I could help mothers to nurture and raise their own children and break this cycle of abuse and traumatic loss.

My Schweitzer project is born out of the hope that women and their children can heal from the effects of trauma and move forward together. I have used my training in occupational therapy to understand the impact of trauma, and focused on the power of meaningful occupation to help promote positive change. By organizing family outings, facilitating family nurturing programs, and using play and positive attachment to help children heal, I have worked to promote healthy interaction and attachment within the families impacted by my project.

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

On a personal level, the families I have served during this Fellowship year have made a lasting impact on me and how I view the world; I hope that this is also true for them. I hope that when they look back on the time we have spent together, they remember me as someone who was their ally, who listened to them, looked for the best in them, and was worthy of their trust. I hope they remember how much fun we had together. Ultimately, my goal is that the relationships we have had will serve to build their resiliency and help to protect them from many of the risks they have faced and will continue to face in their lives.

On a larger scale, I hope that the relationship I started between my project site and my graduate program in occupational therapy will continue to provide meaningful clinical fieldwork experiences for future occupational therapy students. I hope that this will encourage more of my colleagues to join me in working with families who have experienced trauma.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

I believe that child maltreatment is the single most important health issue we face.  Approximately 5-10 million American children experience abuse or neglect each year.   A growing body of evidence demonstrates that maltreated children are at much higher risk for poor health outcomes ranging from school failure, substance abuse, and criminal behavior to many medical conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

Preventing child abuse is a complex issue, but there are many things that we can do as a society to address this problem.  On a policy level, we need increased funding for child welfare programs, expanded access to high-quality child care, and health insurance coverage with consistent primary care for all children. As a health care professional, I think it’s important that we do a better job of providing comprehensive, trauma-informed services for high-risk families and that we find ways to incorporate developmental guidance and parenting support in every interaction. We also need to look beyond typical boundaries between professions and be willing to collaborate in providing intensive, holistic support for families in need.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?

Some Fellows start with a project that is already clearly formulated and a site they know well. In my case, I started out my project as a newcomer to my site. When I started, my site was in the process of hiring someone to become my supervisor and direct children’s programming. I really did not know what my role was or how my project would unfold, so there have been lots of surprises along the way.

In the beginning, I spent time going to all-staff meetings, helping out in the office, and playing with the children in residence as a way of getting to know the culture and needs of my site. Flexibility, a willingness to listen, and my excitement to be involved with anything and everything have served me well throughout this year.  It has been a wonderful experience—I love my site and have learned a great deal from the staff there, especially my supervisor.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?

It is an honor to be a part of a community of people who seek to embody Dr. Schweitzer’s ideals of service to humanity.  Every time I meet with other Fellows I leave feeling challenged, refreshed, excited, and looking forward to the next time we will be together. My own commitment to this work has been sharpened and nourished tremendously through the Fellowship this past year, and I am looking forward to continuing connections and inspiration as I move forward. Being a Fellow for-Life will be a great reminder of the ideals I aspire to live up to throughout my life and a community of peers and role models to help me along the way.

Laura Seidel is a Schweitzer Fellow in Boston, MA. Click here to read more about the Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Seidel it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that impact the health of vulnerable communities. To make a gift to the Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program in honor of Seidel’s efforts to facilitate healing for women and children who have experienced trauma, click here.

Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.