The Life-changing Power of PHlight Club
By Leigh White
Cultivating connections with youth is at the heart of my practice as a child and family therapist. I provide counseling services at Community Connections on Prince of Wales Island in Alaska, primarily for children in foster care.
I attended my first PHlight Club in April 2019, and it’s challenging to put into words how powerful it was. It was truly a life-changing experience.
When I began working on Prince of Wales two years ago, I met Amy McDonald, a school counselor at Southeast Island School District and a leader and trainer for Brightways Learning. Amy invited me to attend PHlight Club, a youth-centered event being hosted in the island community of Klawock. She told me that PHlight Club helps kids build resilience and social-emotional skills by learning to develop connections with caring adults they call Anchors. I had heard positive things about PHlight Club from a colleague, so I decided to attend with two of my clients, a 13-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl.
My clients are soft-spoken, shy, and experience considerable anxiety. Spending three days and two nights with 100 teens and 25 adults took courage. To see them blossom over the course of PHlight Club was amazing. Not only was it remarkable to watch their personal growth, but also my relationship with them now is so much closer since experiencing PHlight Club together.
I’ve been working with my male client for about a year. He has been through 10 different foster homes and many different clinicians. His trust in adults was non-existent. I have a small tent in my office, and when we first began working together, he would sit in the tent and tell me how much he hated me. He refused to even look at me. PHlight Club transformed our relationship in merely three days.
At first, he didn’t participate in the group activities. The PHlight Club leaders made it clear that he was welcome to join in, but they respected his decision if he felt uncomfortable. They didn’t push or force him. If they had, it would have been a very negative experience. Instead, he sat back and observed, interacted informally, and built connections on his terms. He struggles with friendships and relationships, so to see him making those connections as the time and activities progressed was astounding.
On the second day of PHlight Club, the students began completing the Student Support Card surveys on mobile devices. My client allowed me to sit next to him and help him with his surveys. While answering survey questions about Anchors in his life, he said he wondered what it would be like to have a mom like me and to be part of a family like mine. To connect with him on that level was phenomenal. I had made a promise to be there for him at PHlight Club, and I was with him the entire time. I didn’t give up on him, and it built a trust that lasts to this day. We continue to have a very close relationship, and I know that he will be a part of my life forever. More importantly, I witnessed him learning and using skills that makes me confident he will find success in his life.
To watch my female client flourish throughout PHlight Club was also incredible. During one of the activities, she was asked to draw wings on a large, cloth sheet, and then color them in. Her artwork was so beautiful that she received a standing ovation. She was so overcome with joy and happiness that she had to leave the room. No one had ever expressed that kind of gratitude and appreciation for her. It was wonderful. Her confidence continues to grow, as does our relationship. PHlight Club built trust between us that otherwise may not have formed.
Now, whenever I see these clients, they ask me when they can go to another PHlight Club and if I will go with them. I’m looking forward to attending as many PHlight Clubs as possible!
PHlight Club helped me realize that I, too, need a web of support. The relationships I built with other adults at PHlight Club have made me feel more comfortable as a relatively new community member and helped me realize that I have resources. I know that I can reach out to those other adults if there’s something that I need.
As a clinician, I want to recommend PHlight Club to all my clients. As a community member, I want to recommend it to all teens, so they can share the experience and learn vital resilience and connection-building skills. I hope more community adults will attend the next PHlight Club, and I’m brainstorming ways to include them. If we have more Anchors, then more kids will feel confident and comfortable reaching out when they need help and support. Ultimately, it will enable our youth, and our community, to thrive.