Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to yourself

This article appears in the Notes from the Field feature series. View the full series.
Spring in East New York, near where I work. (Brenna Neimanis)

New York, N.Y. — Notes from the Field includes reports from young women volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015 This is our third round of bloggers: Brenna Neimanis is a Good Shepherd Volunteer at a juvenile justice residential detention facility serving adolescent girls in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Kerry DiNardo is a Notre Dame Mission Volunteer AmeriCorps member serving at a Cristo Rey school in Boston.


The word "trigger" is thrown around a lot at the juvenile justice residential facility where I work.

A trigger is something that initiates or provokes a strong feeling in someone that can lead to outbursts of anger, sorrow, fear or other intense feelings, that can then lead to negative behaviors or responses.

There is a huge emphasis at the facility on the idea of knowing your triggers and having a safety plan to combat those feelings when they arise. A safety plan is a list of personal practices that helps you de-escalate and calm down when you have been or feel you will be triggered by something or someone, and it helps you move forward in a positive way.

At work, we have lists upon lists of behaviors that signal that someone has been triggered and that it is time to intervene before an outburst can manifest. For many young people, this can be fidgeting, tapping a foot, shaking a leg, inappropriate giggling, pacing: The examples are endless.

In our facility, we use the Sanctuary Model, which aims to create an environment that is sensitive to past trauma and cares for each individual in a way that promotes positive change. Through my training in this model, I have delved deeper into the idea that the youth and staff I work with have trauma in their histories. I have learned how to make my own safety plan and help others create theirs.

My revised safety plan. (Brenna Neimanis)

As simple as this sounds, I have come to understand how challenging this is. It involves really knowing and understanding yourself, knowing what calms you, then taking that, putting it into practice during stressful situations, funneling it into something composed and productive.

When I first created my own safety plan, I did it thinking that I barely needed one and that I was doing it mostly out of solidarity with the youth. I wrote out some random ideas that I thought sounded like something you would put on a safety plan, including coping skills such as counting to 10 or thinking of a happy place.

But after enduring a few highly stressful days in the facility (riots, fights, flying objects), I found that I did not know myself nearly as well as I thought I did. Experiencing my reactions to stressful situations and hearing more about the lives of the residents I work with made me realize how little significant stress I have endured in my life.

For many of these young people, their whole lives could be considered a stressful situation: neighborhood and family violence, gang activity, peer pressure and violence, the stress that comes from not necessarily knowing where their next meal is coming from.

Though not all of these scenarios are reality for every single youth, it is reality for many. As I've written previously, sexual abuse is a primary predictor for girls entering the juvenile justice system. In some states, 93 percent of girls in the state juvenile justice system have experienced physical or sexual abuse prior to coming into the system, and 84 percent of these youth have experienced family violence. Studies done in other states have had similar statistics.

If that is not stress, I don't know what is.

I have a difficult enough time trying to understand myself and figuring out how to use a safety plan in my own life of significant privilege. It's easy for me to make excuses for why I do certain things or feel certain ways, and I can justify it all in my mind. But how unfair is that when I am sitting here asking youth with significant trauma histories and stressful lives to simply find out exactly what triggers them and then make and use their safety plan when they feel that way? That is a really, really difficult request.

Many of these behaviors are coping mechanisms that have become hard-wired when the residents were very young. The majority of them see the way they act as surviving, and often, these methods were taught to them by their parents and role models. Different residents have told me on multiple occasions that if they had not fought or reacted to someone who was bothering them a certain way, their parents or older siblings would have been furious or called them weak for being passive. This is how many of their peers act, and if they do not reciprocate, they could be ostracized or even hurt. They, at times, were fighting for their well-being and their lives.

A cardboard box memorial on the sidewalk for someone who was killed. (Brenna Neimanis)

During my time working here, I have been able to experience a little taste of the area many of my youth have grown up in and to feel some of the heaviness that can come with it. The facility I work in happens to be in a neighborhood notorious for danger and violence, and many people fear it. People have laughed out loud when I tell them which neighborhood I work in, asking how I could possibly feel safe there.

I do not believe there is such a thing as a "bad neighborhood." There is so much diversity in the issues and specific problems each place faces, and there are many amazing qualities about the people in each place. Responses like laughter or fear at the simple mention of a neighborhood can have an effect and is telling of how difficult things can be for young people growing up there.

As I walk to work and pass yet another cardboard box memorial full of candles and homemade notes for a young person killed by violence, I feel profound sorrow and better understanding for my residents. My residents endure and journey on despite the things they have experienced. I am in awe of these young people and how they have not left themselves. They are still willing to grow and learn and seek the truth and their strength within.

Knowing yourself gives you power, not only to calm yourself down in stressful situations but also to know the amount of strength and power you possess. Knowing how much greatness you hold helps you take steps to use your gifts and strengths to the fullest. To see these young people through their journeys of self-discovery, growth, change and healing is powerful.

[Brenna Neimanis is a Good Shepherd volunteer at a juvenile justice residential detention facility that serves adolescent girls in New York City.]