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Karen Foley of JPA Shares Her Trauma-Informed Wisdom

An understanding of the impact of trauma is always important in mentoring. But as the virus takes its toll on all our communities, it is especially significant.

For this fall’s Mentor Roundtable, Karen Foley, president and CEO of the Juvenile Protection Association (JPA), tackled this timely topic as our community grapples with a level of personal, familial and professional loss that is historic for our nation - but sadly not out of the norm for many of our PEAK scholars.

Like most PEAK scholars, the children JPA serves live in areas disproportionately affected by COVID. Every kid in our caseload right now knows a close family member or friend who has died of COVID,” she said. “In one school, 35% of teachers had the same experience. People are really reeling from this terrible virus.”

Foley began the roundtable by reminding the group that mentoring work is all about the young person -- helpful especially to first-time mentors who might have moments that make them question their impact. Mentoring is always for a profound purpose, even when it might feel like slow going.

She encouraged PEAK mentors to view their scholars through a developmental lens. “Very often, we have expectations of people based on their chronological age, and those expectations may not match where they really are,” Foley explained.

Instead of judging whether a scholar should be able to do something emotionally, she recommended considering what a mentor can do to help his or her protégé mature.

“Meet the kid where they are,” she said. “That is going to save a lot of anguish.”

Some key takeaways for mentors included:

  • Look for how patterns in your mentee’s behavior may relate to his or her attachment style.

  • Stay aware of what might be going on in your mentee’s neighborhood or home environment and be open to listening.

  • Stay consistent and follow through on your commitments - and communicate clearly and honestly when you can’t.

  • Offering choices (even small ones) is one of the best things you can do to help someone restore a sense of control in his or her life.

  • Try less direct approaches to get someone to open up, such as play. “You’d be surprised what you can learn about kids when you play video games with them,” she said.

Foley emphasized the long-term physical and mental-health impacts of adverse childhood experiences, and the role mentoring can play as one of the protective factors that can reduce these symptoms. Mentoring relationships can help young people who have experienced trauma internalize positive experiences and make better choices with their lives.

Mentoring is something beyond a normal relationship; in order to show up in the extraordinary way required to confer these benefits, it’s important that mentors develop healthy self-care practices. Foley encouraged mentors to take time to reflect on their own actions as a mentor and to ask for help if they need it - not only to make sure the mentor’s own needs are met but also to model healthy practices for the young person. “It’s OK to talk about it,” she said.

With limited options for spending time together in person, mentoring this year is truly a challenge - and PEAK mentors are more than rising to it. But with the added level of trauma that the virus adds to already vulnerable communities, this year’s mentoring relationships could have a bigger impact than ever before.


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