Life in Balance

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Toronto Star: Program uses play and art to help abused kids

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When children start treatment at the York Region Abuse Program, they get to choose their very own stuffed bear.

The 30-centimetre-tall knitted toys are called “bravery bears,” and each one is unique. The child’s chosen bear will stay with him or her throughout the Newmarket-based program, which treats victims of child sexual abuse.

“Letting go of the hand of a caregiver and grabbing the hand of a therapist and toddling down the hall into a room can be overwhelming,” Alison Peck, YRAP’s executive director, says while sitting in a black leather chair in the centre’s dimly lit library.

“I call it ‘bearing witness,’ ” she says softly, looking down at the two bears she holds in her hands.

YRAP opened its doors 25 years ago and, although still a tiny organization, it has become a cornerstone of York Region’s social programs, providing free services to those who face a potentially debilitating setback so early in life.

As many as one in three girls and one in four boys suffer child and sexual abuse before they turn 18, although an exact figure is hard to nail down because of low rates of reporting. Peck says victims may consequently suffer eating disorders, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress, homelessness and suicidal ideation “to end the pain.”


“Programming is very intensive trauma-focused work,” says Peck. “You’re doing actual processing of the traumatic event while making sure people are safe and secure . . . and then work on reintegration into society.

“A number of our youth and adult clients will literally talk about the organization as life-saving, and they don’t mean that in a soft way. They mean that ‘if I wasn’t here, doing the work I’ve done with you, I wouldn’t be living.’ ”

For young children, treatment is largely play- and art-based, and a couple of rooms at YRAP are filled to the brim with toys and craft materials.


“You can help kids identify the different characters in their lives and construct a narrative,” she says.


Going forward, Peck says YRAP is focused on eliminating its six-month wait list for the child and youth program. Adults no longer need to wait to get in, something Peck says is critical for treatment.


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