The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A public housing learning pod with in-person therapy supports D.C. students during pandemic

Ryane Nickens adjusts the mask of a child at the TraRon Center. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Jason was meeting with the therapist, moving hand-sized dolls in a small, portable sandbox to re-create everything that happened in his day. Jovan was next and waited his turn outside the door.

A dozen feet away, Demi and Aiyden painted snowmen and Santa Claus on glass ornaments. Marilyn Wiggins, known by all as Grandma Wiggins, reviewed basic math problems with 5-year-old Zoey. Another boy was running from table to table.

“Samiyah, I hear you have homework to do,” said Ryane Nickens, the founder of the program operating out of the small recreation room, directing the seventh-grader to a private study room.

This slice of typical youth chaos at the subsidized Langston Lane Apartments in Southeast Washington is a remnant of more normal times that — with a lot of determination and private donations — has, so far, managed to survive the pandemic.

The TraRon Center is an after-school program turned full-day pandemic learning pod that uses art therapy for children affected by gun violence. Most of the students live in the Langston Lane Apartments.

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Nickens, who founded the TraRon Center in 2017, has pulled off what few in the nation’s capital have been able to do during the pandemic. She’s created a one-room school for up to a dozen children between ages 5 and 15 each day from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

They eat meals there and participate in distance learning with the help of two paid staff members. Therapists meet with each student in person once a week. An art therapist meets with groups in person three times a week. Volunteer virtual tutors help students during the week.

Most of the children attend nearby Stanton Elementary, and when they’re struggling with their remote classes, their teachers call the TraRon Center or stop by Langston Lane to help them in person.

“I learned how wealthier families were creating learning pods,” Nickens said. “So I thought, let’s just create a learning pod and give our kids some of their normalcy back.”

The center has safety measures in place: Temperature checks at the door. Thorough cleaning multiple times a day. Adults in the facility must get tested once a month. Mask mandates.

But it’s not perfect. The children need to be frequently reminded as they are running around to pull their masks up over their noses, and there’s not much social distancing.

Nickens said she has not identified a coronavirus case connected with the center since she allowed children back in this summer.

Many of the children are siblings and cousins from just five families. Nickens said that if she didn’t have the learning hub, she suspects some of the families would have helped one another with child care, and the children would have played together indoors and been exposed to each other anyway.

She said parents always call her if they learn they’ve been exposed to the virus. It’s the way the TraRon Center has always worked: When parents learn about gun violence or rising tensions that could lead to violence in the area, they always text Nickens to let her know so that she keeps the children inside.

“These are kids that hang out all the time. They hang out in hallways together,” said Nickens, 42, who has asthma and high blood pressure. “I have told them from the moment I started, you have to be honest with things, because I cannot get sick. They take my health, their health and their children’s health seriously.”

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When Nickens started the TraRon Center, she wasn’t sure what the program would be like, but she knew she wanted to help address the gun-violence-induced trauma afflicting so many D.C. residents.

When she was a child, her older brother and sister were fatally shot three years apart in the same Southeast Washington alley. Her uncle was fatally shot. Her mom was shot and survived.

TraRon comes from the names of her slain siblings, Tracy and Ronnie. Trauma from gun violence wasn’t talked about much when Nickens was a child in the ’80s and ’90s. She fell into depression after her siblings’ deaths, thought of suicide — and got help when a school counselor told her mom she needed it.

Trauma is all around Langston Lane. Samiyah Coats’s middle school friend was killed this summer in Maryland. A young girl in the program survived being struck by a bullet in 2018. Aiyden Wiggins’s older brother was friends with Gerald Watson, a 15-year-old who was shot and killed in a Langston Lane hallway in 2018 as he cried for help. At least two children in the TraRon Center heard the shooting.

And the pandemic hasn’t slowed the violence in the District, which experienced its highest number of homicides this year in more than a decade. Ward 8, where the children live, also has the city’s highest death toll from covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“Since the pandemic, people have been protesting, people are dying, and it’s stressful,” said 12-year-old Samiyah, who is failing pre-algebra this semester but is working with a tutor to bring her grades up. “When I’m stressed, the therapist helps me stay strong.”

Meg van Achterberg, a child psychiatrist who sits on the board of the TraRon Center, said they retested the children for post-traumatic stress disorder in June and determined that for nearly all of them, their trauma had worsened since evaluations nine months earlier.

“We could tell that, from March through June, that the kids were lonely. They were sadder,” she said. “They were sad and missing us and questioning whether we would come back, questioning whether we would go back to normal.”

When schools closed in March, the TraRon Center made its services virtual, too. But the children weren’t participating as much. They didn’t like doing art and meeting with therapists on the computer.

Starting in the summer, Nickens took the big step of opening up the recreation room as an in-person learning hub and therapy space.

“I miss my old friends. You just think about it a lot,” said Samiyah’s cousin, Aiyden Wiggins, 9. “Like where are they at?”

Nickens tries to plan special activities for the students. On a recent weekday, five students took a cooking class at the famed Ben’s Chili Bowl as part of a fundraiser for the center. The restaurant’s co-founder, Virginia Ali, 87, met with them and asked each of them about their dreams.

Marilyn Wiggins, who has five grandchildren who attend the TraRon Center, said the learning hub allows them to be children. And she likes that they receive their therapy in person.

“They get to come here and not worry about what goes on in the neighborhood,” Wiggins said. “They have their own space here.”

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