SFH CEO’s Personal Journey Implementing Holistic Therapy
By Abdul Seraaj
Edited by Intisar Seraaj-Sabree
In 1977, I was working in Selma, Alabama at the Dallas County Juvenile Detention Center (DCJDC) with teen boys. During the 70s, the boys in the Dallas County Juvenile Detention Center had a reputation of being difficult to handle, mainly because they were being confined behind bars. As a young college student, I implemented a holistic health program [for the boys at DCJDC]. There were many protests from some of my coworkers, but my immediate supervisor and a local judge supported what I implemented. As a result, the acting out, incidents of fighting, and destruction of property [among the boys] were greatly reduced.
[My holistic program] consisted of intense, early morning physical fitness drills, musical therapy, and self-study in order to reduce stress and anxiety levels in the boys. I even worked out with them. I would never ask them to do something that I would not be willing to participate in. Some of the students created a game of who could outlast me while doing certain types of exercises. I learned that it was important to allow the boys to win sometimes in order to increase their self-esteem.
[The program also included] musical therapy at exactly 1:30 p.m. every day, which was used as reflection and relaxation time. During this time, I noticed that the majority of the boys lacked the proper language skills to express their thoughts and had very poor reading skills. I also noticed that the boys with the most severely [tarnished] vocal and language skills tended to have increased physical aggression. Thus, reading time proceeded musical therapy.
Visitations, outside of and within the group home, with their families on weekends was also a significant part of the program. [During visitations], I kindly approached and spoke to their family members with the utmost respect. I would also redirect their family members who spoke negatively about the boys.
I often stated that visitation times were always special for both the boys and me because it gave me insight in to the root causes of the boys’ problems. I noticed that kids who had regular healthy family visitations suffered far less behavior disruptions. It is better for kids living outside of their home to maintain regularly scheduled family visits, even if they may not be able to return home. This process prevents kids from fantasizing about family conditions at home, and allows them to see for themselves that their family conditions were not very healthy for them.
During this process, there is a special bond that is created between the persons responsible for conducting the visitation and the child. It is very important for the child to know that they have an advocate who is striving to help them maintain family contact.
In the fall of 1978, Nadiyah Seraaj (the cofounder of Seraaj Family Homes, Inc.) and I began implementing a holistic treatment approach in a community-based group home for teens in Montgomery, Alabama. We established our own community-based support systems by connecting the teens from a local college as educational tutors and mentors. As group home parents, we also connected with the Montgomery school system by signing up to function as substitute teachers during the days the teens attended school. We would only substitute teach at the schools our group home youth attended. The youth were often shocked when they walked into their classroom and saw one of us functioning as their teacher. This also allowed us to build positive relationships with the school counselors, teachers, and principles. In addition, we made an agreement with local college basketball coaches to allow our group home youth to attend home games for free.
Also, every summer we assisted each of the youth with acquiring summer jobs through a government sponsored program called the CEDAR Program. And every Sunday the kids would connect with local churches for religious services, connecting them with other positive adult role models. The churches would even give the kids Christmas gifts and money. Also, several of the elderly church members would routinely invite all of us to their homes for Sunday dinner after church. The dinners served as a means to teach the group home kids social and cultural diversity skills. In addition, the Sunday dinners served as a means to create extended families for those kids who did not have grandparents or suitable parental figures in their lives.
In 1981, Nadiyah and I started to work at Boys Town in Omaha, Nebraska. We managed a group home for teen boys where we also used a holistic and a behavioral approach to treatment.
Our group home was known for only taking the most behavioral-challenged boys. We took boys that every other treatment program had failed. This allowed us the headway needed to be creative. Our holistic treatment style worked. Our group home became so well-known among the boys on campus at Boys Town that before being terminated from Boys Town, the boys would request a placement at our home. The boys strongly believed that we would never give up on them. They took pride in the fact that our group home out-performed and out-worked anybody else on the Boys Town campus.
The local juvenile court judges found out about our success and began requesting that certain boys be placed in our group home. The judges would allow us to function as foster parents; thus, allowing us to make decisions concerning the boys’ care.
[At this group home], the concept of good school and home behavior came first. Learning social and basic living skills were part of the daily activities. Each boy had to learn how to accept routine criticism, how to follow instructions, how to accept and give feedback, how to accept “no” as an answer, how to answer the phone, greeting and introduction skills, basic ecofriendly skills, and how and when to report their whereabouts. Every social skill was explained on a 3×5 card and turned into role-playing components. The boys earned points for engaging in social skills on a daily basis.
Each teen was encouraged to have a job, to participate in sports, or in an age-appropriate afterschool activity. We also encouraged them to establish a savings account as part of teaching money management and independent living skills. All of the boys achieved the set goal of having more than $2,000 dollars in their savings account upon their high school graduation date.
[Additionally, Nadiyah and I] did fitness activities with the boys every morning, which included running a mile before breakfast and before school. Some boys thought that they could never run a mile or even two miles before they came to our home. But they did.
Each child was encouraged to maintain excellent personal appearance and hygiene, and to remain physically fit. Horseback riding, hiking, running, basketball, touch football, weight lifting, and bicycle riding were incorporated to show the boys how to be active and have appropriate family fun. On weekends, I would routinely took the boys on a 30 to 60 mile bike ride. Some thought that they could never take a 30 or 60 mile bike ride, but they did and they were very successful. These games and activities served as a continuous teaching tool, teaching them how to accept winning and losing, good sportsmanship, how to be a team player, and to have good self-esteem.
Children that have been abused and neglected often have poor self-esteem. It is important to create situations where they can make accomplishments in their personal lives. This is the best type of therapy; it is better than sitting in an office talking about seemingly never-ending problems. Learning how to read or save money, or learn something you thought you could never do is also therapy. Knowing that you have achieved something that you never thought you could have achieved is therapy.
Lastly, providing unconditional care was a part of the Seraaj holistic treatment, and it’s our hallmark.