Malikai’s story offers lessons for us all

By Roy Lincoln Karp
Special to the Reporter

Malikai is a lanky seventh grader at Tech Boston Academy who loves animals, making art, and playing lacrosse. He’s doing well in school now, but that wasn’t always the case.

Beginning at age six, Malikai had a series of traumatic experiences that left him angry and confused. A few months after his twin sisters were born, an electrical fire ripped through his family’s apartment. They lost almost all of their possessions, including Malikai’s toys, baby blanket, and cherished stuffed tiger. Afterwards, the family bounced around friends’ houses for several months until they found a new place to live.

A few months later, Malikai’s father was in the basement showing two men a dirt bike he was selling. One of the men shot his dad before taking off with the bike. The father spent more than a week in the ICU at Boston Medical Center and didn’t get home for six weeks. The robbers were never caught. Malikai was afraid they would come back and also angry that they could get away with their violent crime.

For the first time, he started acting out in school. His mother, Cheryl, recalls reports from his teachers that he was hiding under his desk and throwing books against the wall in frustration. “I had anger issues,” Malakai says, “and I guess what I would call tantrums.”

That was when Malikai was referred to Boston Youth Sanctuary (BYS), a therapeutic after school program for children ages 6 to 11 who have experienced trauma. At BYS, he was paired with a child psychotherapist and participated in activities such as gardening, cooking, creative arts, and trauma-informed yoga.

I recently met with Jana Karp (no relation), who founded BYS in 2011. I asked her how she developed this innovative approach. “We thought about caregivers as experts, because they are the experts on their children,” she said. What parents said they needed most was trauma-sensitive programming during after-school hours provided by culturally competent providers who shared lived experiences with their kids. They also wanted adults who would be present in their children’s lives for more than a few weeks or months as well as free transportation and hot meals.
Jana and her team then set out to meet those needs and the results of their active listening are evident. Stepping through the doors of BYS, you immediately sense you are in a caring and nurturing environment. Staff members work patiently with students, who appear engaged and comfortable in the space. Student artwork is displayed on walls that are painted in warm colors. “We chose these colors because they are trauma sensitive,” Jana explained as we walked around the space.

BYS believes in meeting the needs of the “whole child” rather than focusing solely on specific symptoms of trauma. Through enrichment programs that integrate mentoring, empowerment activities, as well as individual, group, and expressive therapies, BYS supports children as students, family members, community members, artists, friends, and athletes.

Cheryl says the organization is like a loving family. “The staff here goes above and beyond. They genuinely care even after the students graduate.” She described how staff members attended Malikai’s lacrosse games to show their support.

Non-profit managers are often told by funders that they need to behave more like their counterparts in the business sector. They need to demonstrate their efficacy through “measurable outcomes” and provide a good “return on investment.”

But I wonder if this approach isn’t backwards. In this era of #MeToo, which has exposed widespread misogyny and bullying at major corporations and institutions, there is much to be learned from organizations like BYS that value people more than profits. Many of those in power at large institutions could benefit from seeing what it takes to grow an effective organization based on respect for people. Perhaps they could learn how to truly listen.