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Featured Fellows: Elisy Blanco-Mercado and Ashley Tavarez

School Social Workers in Providence School District, Support Students, Teachers, and Families Through a Trauma-Informed Lens

By Hailey Jordan, Research Assistant, New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center

Elisy Blanco-Mercado and Ashley Tavarez are social workers at elementary schools in Providence, RI and members of the Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative (C-TLC) Fellowship program. Both women share the same profession and the same family tree. Elisy (mother) and Ashley (daughter) are committed to creating effective programming and systems in schools that foster children’s social emotional development. These C-TLC Fellows also strive to collaborate with families to make school-based mental health more inclusive and culturally responsive.

Using Trauma-Skilled Practices to Support Students, Teachers, and Families

For Elisy and Ashley, trauma-skilled practices have always been at the forefront of their profession. Their background in social work has allowed them to highlight the connection between trauma-responsive, healing practices and academic outcomes among students. From promoting mindfulness in the classroom to showcasing the importance of social emotional learning by providing evidence-based resources to staff and families, Elisy and Ashley are well-positioned to offer valuable insight to their schools and district.

Both C-TLC Fellows support students, teachers, and families in their work. At their own schools, they provide individual and group counseling, collaborate with teachers to identify effective interventions, and conduct student assessments to understand individual needs and strengths for behavior support planning. Elisy and Ashley also help families navigate social services and access resources. As school social workers, Elisy and Ashley ensure that parents, family members, and caregivers are aware of the help they can provide. Establishing a network of support with families and school leaders is essential to advancing youth mental well-being and academic progress.

Incorporating Cultural Responsiveness and Compassion in Schools

Elisy and Ashley's vision for working toward becoming a compassionate and culturally responsive school starts with a welcoming environment where everyone feels valued and appreciated. As school social workers of Dominican heritage, Elisy and Ashley recognize how their cultural background influences their drive to connect with students and families from different cultures, including their own. Learning from unique perspectives and experiences rooted in one’s culture can foster a stronger sense of community and understanding. In addition, there is much value in being knowledgeable of how culture plays a role in mental health, and in turn, the effectiveness of school-based mental health care.

Elisy and Ashley incorporate the cultural values of families to plan workshops and information sessions centered on topics related to youth mental health. They also make it a priority to partner with families and caregivers to learn how they can best provide support to students. Within their schools, the staff is becoming more culturally diverse, which speaks to the importance of representation among school leaders. These C-TLC Fellows also believe it is crucial for teachers to feel supported by the district and for communities to know that schools are a resource for the entire family. Currently, their schools have curricula focused on social emotional learning in each classroom. For the last 17 years, school counselors have also led group lessons for teachers and students. On the district level, the Family Engagement Office has worked to build connections with families and caregivers through key programming.

Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative: A Space for Connection and Collaboration

The mother-daughter duo described their experience with the C-TLC as "collaborative, encouraging, and inspiring." Elisy has appreciated the C-TLC for providing a space to connect with other Fellows and members who share a common interest of promoting youth well-being in schools. Ashley echoed the same sentiment—it has been helpful to learn from individuals of various professions (i.e., principals, teachers, district representatives, and other administrators) who recognize the importance of trauma-skilled practices to improve student mental health. Both Fellows have also found Basecamp—the C-TLC's resource hub—to be extremely useful for learning about evidence-based strategies and bringing the information back to their schools for review and possible implementation.

Celebrating Quality Family Time and Practicing Gratitude

In the spirit of the holidays, many families are coming together to spend quality time with one another. Elisy and Ashley defined quality family time as sharing experiences and being intentional about connecting with loved ones. As part of a large, close knit family, the mother-daughter duo use multiple group chats to easily communicate with their relatives, nuclear and extended. Their family also makes the time and space to celebrate life's precious moments. For a relative's birthday, family members bring a cake to their home as a surprise. Even during the height of the pandemic, Elisy and Ashley's family participated in drive-by birthday parades to commemorate a relative's special day.

Other special traditions include the annual Friendsgiving to celebrate with friends that have become family and Secret Santa gift exchanges—one for adults and the other for the children in their lives. Both C-TLC Fellows affirm that "there is always something to look forward to. It is the little things that matter in order to stay connected. Keeping the family traditions alive from generation to generation is a way to cope together and show gratitude."

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