11/22/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Youth Speak Up and Stand Out in Chicago

Until recently youth have been greatly ignored in trauma treatment, program and outreach strategy development. This, as we are discovering, is a mistake.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2006, U.S. state and local child protective services (C.P.S.) investigated 3.6 million reports of children being abused or neglected. C.P.S. classified more than 900,000 (12.1 per 1,000) of these children as victims. Many of these children go on to become youth being shuffled through our juvenile justice system, those who have firsthand experience with mental health/trauma treatment services and foster care. Their information, experiences, knowledge and once involved, their enthusiasm is invaluable to building better programs, policies and procedures for a better, more family driven system of care.

To prove this point, my daughter and I were invited for the first time to participate in the Annual National Child Traumatic Stress Network face to face planning meeting in Chicago. Involving young people as youth advocates provides them with a fantastic educational opportunity and as it turned out, for the adults as well. My daughter was one of four first ever youth to attend and have a voice. With great maturity they listened. They spoke beyond their years. They delivered messages of hope they would want to share with other youth across the country at youth forums, conferences and school assemblies.

Breea, a kidnap and hostage survivor who endured a horrific ordeal at age 7, is now 15 and after two years of trauma therapy at the Chadwick Center in San Diego, is speaking out to tell others to "grow up strong, never give up and no matter what make high self-esteem a priority."

The other young advocates talked about embracing who you are, loving yourself and not allowing what others have done to you to get you down for the rest of your life. The tone from them all was overwhelmingly positive and filled with inspiring words and emotions. Through tackling real life problems and challenging situations they have acquired problem solving and decision making skills and can discuss from personal experience what was lacking in their treatment plans and what contributed most to successful recovery, goal setting and self-love. These youth worked cooperatively in a team, and at the same time showed remarkable appreciation, respect and interest in the adult participants' perspectives.

Their voice was the most heard, freshest and timely of the entire 2-day meeting as they spoke up about the word "therapy" and how it is viewed by other youth as negative, weak and pathetic. My daughter shared how she is teased, something I didn't even know, when being called into "therapy" with a big green slip via an office aid coming into the middle of her class and announcing it. That makes it tough to look forward to getting positive help due to the negative way youth still view "therapy".

They spoke up about incorporating music into their presentations to help reach youth in a cool and understandable way while making "therapy" more like talking to a friend and better ways to get called into the office for a "therapy session". They were honest about what worked for them and what they thought would make treatment better for those needing help now and in the future. They were bright, poignant and downright bold--a breath of fresh air to say the least.

The community can gain the creativity and energy of young people that can be directed toward projects that are beneficial to all, while building a sense of value and appreciation for the community and encouraging youth to continue their involvement as adults. Just as people with special experiences or skills (e.g., sports, music, investing, politics, medicine) give presentations to instruct and inform others in an educational format, so can these amazing youth in our country do with their special gifts, skills and talents that they have acquired by living through incredible circumstances. But they have to be given the chance to speak up, be heard and shine.

The annual face to face meeting in Chicago did just that, and I am so proud to say I was there to witness this milestone and can only hope that this is the beginning of a new awakening to the importance of youth involvement that will continue to blossom for many years to come. As we witnessed at the meeting in Chicago, the contribution of youth to community and treatment program improvement has the potential to be an incredible gift to others.

But how and what will we give back to them in return? The kind of involvement discussed here will have a more lasting impact on the community than will a trophy adorning a display case in the athletic office at a school. But that trophy, that reward and that recognition means a lot to the team that has worked so hard to get it. So as we embark on this new and rich soil of opportunity and youth beginning to work hard to change the way others view and experience treatment in a therapeutic way and the positive impact it can have, let's be prepared to celebrate, honor and reward youth for their community excellence in the same way that others are celebrated for athletic excellence.

Anyone wanting these youth advocates to speak at an event, school assembly or on a youth panel, please contact the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.