By BRENNA GRITEMAN
Open Arms of Findlay is known for its work helping individuals and families in their recovery from domestic violence and sexual assault.
But the agency is also dedicated to prevention in many forms, including teaching children to respect themselves and others and to recognize abuse or potential warning signs when they see it.
Muriel Black, prevention coordinator with Open Arms, says summer programming focuses more on younger kids — pre-preschool through about fifth grade — and is based on social and emotional learning. Children’s programming touches on a wide array of topics, including personal responsibility, respect, body ownership and healthy ways to handle emotions like anger or pain.
“The idea is that, if kids at a young age can understand these really basic emotional skills, then as adults they will translate those skills to their relationships,” Black said.
Black visits the free summer lunch program at Glenwood Middle School twice a week, and presents programs at the YMCA’s child development center, the Owens Community College child care facility, One Amazing Place and more. Summer programs tend to utilize more interactive play and games, as opposed to the worksheets and desks children are restricted to in a school setting.
A recent program at the Bluffton Public Library was themed “Respecting Yourself and Others” and targeted kids entering fourth and fifth grades.
The students began with a human scavenger hunt, during which they identified people who enjoyed cooking or whose favorite color is purple, for instance. While the game helped everyone in the room get to know one another, it also served to reinforce a deeper message.
“We’re all different. We like different things. We come from different families and backgrounds and we’ve had different experiences,” Black explained. “But we can still respect each other, can’t we?”
The children then listed a number of ways they can show respect to their parents and families, as well as to strangers they encounter out in the world. They mentioned listening and taking direction, and being kind and helpful. Some suggested sharing their toys or video games with their younger siblings, even if they weren’t thrilled with the prospect.
One child then raised his hand and asked a very important question: “But how do we respect ourselves?”
Black opened the question to the group, who suggested things like sitting up straight and eating nutritious foods. One child proposed taking time to themselves when they need it. And Black suggested being kind to oneself, even in the face of disappointment. If your team loses a baseball game, for instance, it’s important to remind yourself: “I know I’m a good player.”
During the school year, programs are delivered to middle and high school students in the city and county schools. These focus heavily on dating violence and the national Love is Not Abuse campaign, often in a scenario-based setting. They also touch on healthy communication and gender stereotypes.
Black said she is often surprised at how responsive kids can be, picking up on abusive behaviors they’ve seen in their friends’ or their parents’ relationships, or sometimes even in their own interactions with their peers.
She said youth prevention messages have evolved over the years, based on changing research. One such example is the topic of stranger safety, which has lessened in scope with the understanding that sexual violence and other forms of abuse are most frequently carried out by someone you know rather than a stranger.
Open Arms offers crisis intervention, emergency shelter and advocacy. The agency operates a 24-hour crisis hotline at 419-422-4766.