“Our families may not recognize trauma because it has become so normal in our community,” she said. That includes gun violence, domestic violence, poverty and homelessness. Just because these things are common, Abu-Bakr explains, doesn’t mean they are right — or that they have to be accepted.
“In this community, our families begin to normalize the unhealthy responses [to trauma],” Abu-Bakr said. “We have the job of teaching them there is a different way to deal with and process the experiences, because our goal is to help them create healthy children.”
Abu-Bakr is a licensed graduate professional counselor, born and raised in Southeast. Her career has included working at the police department with victims of violent crime and at the D.C. jail with returning citizens.
She previously worked at Bright Beginnings, too, as a family advocate, a person who manages individual cases. She rejoined the staff in April. Part of Abu-Bakr’s job is making sure the entire Bright Beginnings organization recognizes trauma.
“I try to help them understand how trauma shows up and what it looks like, especially in a school setting,” she said. “This child may have ADHD, or can’t sit down, or has anger issues — or it just could be that child’s response to a traumatic event they experienced.”
It isn’t only the children. Bright Beginnings provides support to parents, too.
In October, Abu-Bakr launched a healthy-relationships class, a weekly discussion designed to help parents — many of whom are single moms — assess the bonds they’ve formed and identify red flags in future relationships.
Bright Beginnings also provides something you might not expect at a typical preschool: individual and group therapy. Part of the challenge there, Abu-Bakr said, is getting parents to accept that mental health therapy is not something to be ashamed of.
Often, she said, people struggling with depression in poor communities don’t really know it’s depression.
“They’re getting up every day and doing what they have to do and are kind of oblivious to what they’re really feeling,” Abu-Bakr said. “They’ve become numb. They get up every day, and they take care of their children and have just kind of put themselves on the back burner.”
There is crisis intervention, too.
“Anyone can just come in and meet with me,” Abu-Bakr said. “They have a safe space. They know they have a place they can go and that what they share is confidential.”
As Abu-Bakr establishes relationships with parents, she helps them understand their own lives. She helps them identify areas where they can use support.
“A lot of our families started off at a disadvantage because they didn’t have all the resources that they needed when they started a family,” Abu-Bakr said. “They didn’t have the resources they needed when they grew up. They were at a disadvantage not just with resources but even with skill sets.”
The hope is that by addressing these gaps — by helping parents in ways their mothers and fathers may not have — they will be better parents to their children.
A lot of parents, Abu-Bakr said, wonder if they’re “doing right by their children. I just do a lot of encouraging our families to keep going.”
Bright Beginnings is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand, our annual fundraising drive. To give, visit posthelpinghand.com and click “Donate.”
To contribute by mail, make a check payable to Bright Beginnings and send it to: Bright Beginnings, Attn: Helping Hand, 3418 Fourth St. SE, Washington, D.C. 20032.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.