We were having a discussion about what goes on at Mill Grove, when a wise new member of our residential community who comes from Uganda surprised me by asking me about “child therapy sessions”. Not aware of any such sessions at Mill Grove I asked for clarification. “The sessions every Thursday afternoon”, he replied without hesitation. I was non-plussed, having not the slightest idea what he was talking about. He explained that it was the times when children and young people who did not live at Mill Grove came to have an evening meal with us and stay for the evening.
“Yes, this certainly has happened for many years”, I responded, “but why do you call them child therapy sessions?” He made two substantial points by way of reply. First, he pointed out that Mill Grove was a place of what he called “conversations” that ebbed and flowed continuously throughout days and weeks. It was through such unstructured encounters that so many emotional and personal issues were shared, and, over time, resolved to a greater or lesser extent. Second, he noted that I personally was often engaged in conversations with one or other of the children who came on Thursdays.
With this in mind, I recounted how Thursday evenings as we know them started. Several years ago we were asked to help a mother of four children who was depressed and at the point of giving up. She pleaded with us to take her children into our home and care for them. That was an option legally and practically, but was it the best course of action long term for mother and children?
We took stock carefully and invited the children round to our house the next evening. (I think it was a Thursday, but cannot be sure). We collected them from their home after school as agreed. This gave us the opportunity of meeting and getting to know the children and how they related to each other, as well as giving the mother some personal space (respite is, I guess, the term that might now be used) and reassuring her that there was a practical resource close by.
We suggested that the children might like to come to spend time with us on a regular basis. Both they and the mother were keen on this, and it only remained to work out what “regular” might mean in this situation. We hit on a weekly arrangement, and so what my colleague called the “child therapy sessions” were born.
We still collect the young people every Thursday: on the journey we sometimes chat about what has been happening at home and school, sometimes we listen to music; before tea there is space for them to unwind, play, do homework and relax as they choose; at the meal table we have the sort of conversations you have in families where meals are a social not just a functional occasion for eating; prayer times are part of the evening meal, and they involve reflections, brief discussions, and the sharing of news; then there is washing up, done strictly in rota to be fair to everyone; and then a period of games, play or chatting until about 8.30 p.m. when it is time to go.
As our relationships developed, the children asked if they could be with us for Christmas and join us during the holidays. They always like to celebrate their birthdays at Mill Grove. Now it is accepted that they come with us for two weeks to North Wales in the summer, sometimes join us for longer trips, and spend Bank Holidays with us.
Their mother was delighted about this. We have got to know them and we are occasionally invited to special events at their schools or church. In effect we have become “cousins” as the term is understood in African cultures. It includes biologically defined cousins but also others who relate to a family household as relations would. In this way it is inclusive. Mill Grove is rather like the home of grandparents in this respect.
Since this happened with one family, we have found that the pattern seems to work with others, and so Thursday night usually involves at least three families, and there are other “Thursday nights” emerging. And in each case the outcomes are similar: the mother feels supported in very practical ways as well as emotionally; the children grow in confidence; the space created allows us (parents and children) to discuss whatever matters are of interest or concern as friends without pressure or expectations.
So there we have it: that is how the “child therapy sessions” started! And as my colleague reflected on what he saw happening I began to realise what he meant. Mill Grove has no formal therapy or counselling as part of its pattern or way of life, but personal development by means of relationships and conversations is what the place is all about. And through this simple weekly pattern of life genuine healing and growth has been possible. It has been therapeutic, though it has never involved formal therapy. And that is a revealing distinction.
There are residential establishments for children and young people that call themselves “therapeutic communities”: a well-known cluster in the UK is known as the Charterhouse Group. I have had the privilege of getting to know several members of this group, but Mill Grove is not a member. It is not that we differ in our understanding of the importance of relationships and conversations to personal growth and development, but that in every other establishment these relationships and conversations are in some way formalised and structured, and people are designated as psychologists, psychotherapists or psychiatrists. We do not have such people as part of the team at Mill Grove, although some of the young people are referred to them from time to time by school or general practitioner.
Mill Grove has learnt a lot from other types of residential community in different parts of the world: it is eager to learn, and we are acutely aware of our weaknesses and limitations. But in remaining faithful to our founding vision, in being committed lifelong to the children and young people who come to live with us, in developing a philosophy of life and care that is sensitive to seasons and rhythms of nature, and rites of passage, we find that a particular therapeutic milieu has been created, almost as by-product or serendipity. Thursday evenings are a small part of that milieu.
In In Residence March 2006 I described how one of the “Thursday children” who I called Pauline had grown in self-esteem. The piece was written before the conversation that started this column. I now find it very revealing. You might like to check it out too.