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‘Girls in the Game’ helps young Chicago girls get help with PTSD

Alecia Ivery assists girls dealing with the issues around them through sports and sensitivity training

For years, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been associated with the emotional trauma of veterans in postwar situations. While PTSD is often considered a veteran’s dilemma, recent studies show that the rates of PTSD in children are twice as much as for war veterans. Now, researchers at Northwestern Medicine have discovered that there is an unexpectedly large percentage of black women in Chicago experiencing symptoms.

A young woman in the Chicago area has decided to dedicate her time to help combat the issue by encouraging young girls to discover their strength through adaptive sports and recreation.

Alecia Ivery, a 26-year-old full-time assistant co-camp manager at Girls in the Game — a Chicago-based program that engages young women year-round in sports, health and leadership programs — has lived through the violence in the area and is paying it forward.

“I got involved when I was 14, and I started off just as a counselor and trainer in our summer camp program just because I wasn’t old enough to work. But I still wanted to be involved, and I just stayed involved ever since then,” Ivery said.

Founded in 1995, Girls in the Game has empowered more than 40,000 girls, helping them to grow up happy, healthy and strong through fun and active sports, health and leadership programs.

Coaches in the program are given trauma-sensitive training through a partnership with trauma experts in Up2Us Sports, a national program that, according to its website, is dedicated to transforming the lives of our nation’s most vulnerable youths by hiring and training coaches who can inspire their success on and off the field. They are taught to recognize the signals of traumatized kids so they’re able to teach them tactics to help channel their toxic stress into nondestructive behavior.

Girls in the Game, which helps address PTSD among Chicago’s female population ages 7 to 18, is a year-round program that gives girls the opportunity to play sports and provides them with emotional and mental support.

“We provide sports health and leadership programming to girls in the Chicago area, but also we have some expansion market,” Ivery explained. “But yeah, we started off with a group of women that attributed all their success to their experience playing sports, and they felt like it was just this gap that needs to be filled when it comes to girls having the opportunity to play sports, but then also to have that support when it comes to health and leadership piece.

“So they’ll be able to address the whole girl and not just the physical aspect, but just overall their well-being in that sense. So yeah, and that’s the background of it.”

This is Ivery’s 12th year with the program but her first year working full time with Girls in the Game.

“I was able to be a participant in the program, and now actually be able to implement and train the coaches and making sure that mission is fulfilled in that sense,” she said.

Ivery attended Hope College in Harland, Michigan, where she earned a degree in exercise science and health education. She later earned her master’s degree in coaching and athletic administration from Concordia University in Irvine, California.

“I would go to college and come back in the summer to be a counselor,” she said. “I was in this program that tried to promote girls to get involved in the sciences, and when I was graduating from middle school I would always play basketball, and I wanted to do something else because it was always all year-round basketball, nonstop.

“So I was looking for something that would give me another form of something to do, but still have something to do with sports, and then they told me about Girls in the Game. That’s what drew me to the program. I was still able to play sports while also learning more about health and leadership development.”

Ivery said that for the past couple of years she was able to take in the entire process of dealing with communities such as Chicago and extend to other counselors the trauma-sensitivity training she’s learned.

“We work in those underserved communities that the girls or the children in general are witnessing certain issues, situations around them,” Ivery said. “In Chicago, that can mean violence. So being able to have a program or organization like us to train the coaches on how to understand that not all the girls or not all the kids may experience some form of trauma, but understanding that there is a possibility to teach them how to cope with those situations that they’ve been involved in, but then also recognize how they’re feeling and being able to give them that safe space to voice how they’re feeling about what they’ve seen.

“It’s pretty much being able to recognize and understand some of the triggers that may occur during programming so we won’t be re-traumatizing the girls again. It’s that process of, like, understanding those signals that the kids might display.”

What’s been the hardest part in seeing the women and the girls go through the training?

I think the hardest part for me, or I know a lot of the coaches, is finding the right thing to say when girls do disclose things or part of something that they’ve seen, so making sure and just that nervousness around saying the right thing or making sure that we’re giving them that listening ear or just giving them that support that they need, so I think that’s the hardest thing or the nerve-wracking part about it is just making sure that we’re there to support them when needed. Sometimes just being able to just listen to them and letting them voice how they’re feeling.

What’s been the most fulfilling?

For me it’s just being able to see the girls actually start at a young age and then grow up in an organization. It’s one of those things that I take pride in because now I have some teens in our program that’s going away to college, and I had them when they were like 8 and 9 years old, so being able to see them grow up in the organization similar to how I did is always fulfilling.

How did the organization help you at best?

Yeah, for me it’s given me a space to just interact with girls my age, but also a space just to be a kid, because a lot of the time in our program we have girls maybe older. Being able to have space that the girls can just be themselves and share different stories and share their experiences and share things that’s going on. I feel like a lot of the time a lot of the coaches, it’s our place in the community to be that support system for the kids and create that space for them to share and play and just have fun, but then also learn those life skills that come along with the sports skills that we teach.

How does this program help the girls cope with PTSD?

I would say just having that safe space and that space to be able to think through things they are going through, and maybe help prevent them.

What is the biggest thing that you’ve seen as far as growth?

I would say self-confidence, and just the positive identity they develop throughout programming. Take, for instance, it’s the shy girl that comes into the program, and it’s just being able to see her be more vocal and be more confident and speaking up. Those are always traits that are the most prominent where you can see that actual growth. So just small things like that, being able to see them react in a certain way where they’re not getting in trouble and things like that, so you do see those things happening.

Are there any misconceptions about the program that people may have?

Just because it’s like Girls in the Game and that whole focus, a lot of the time it’s letting them know that we focus on just the empowerment of the girls and not necessarily pulling down any other gender. It’s more on focus and learn and grow on their own and giving them that space to do so.

What do you see with the program and with the participants in the next five years?

Our goal is to have girls be able to stay with us from when they’re 8 years old all the way up until they’re 18, so as an organization we just hope that girls are able to stay with us even once they’re out of high school, like myself coming back and working full time. We have a couple other coaches coming back as alumni, so just to be able to stay involved and be able to give back and share the lessons that they learned.

Kelley Evans is a digital producer at Andscape. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic Southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.