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‘Bring their voices out’: This CNN Hero is using music to help kids process trauma

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There are hundreds of thousands of children across the United States who are living in juvenile detention centers or residential treatment facilities. Many of these young people have experienced serious trauma in their lives.

“People vaguely know that they’re there. They have no idea what the kids are like, where they’ve been, what’s happened to them,” said Mike Ball, whose nonprofit, Lost Voices, works with teens like these. “They’re otherwise lost to the world. Let’s bring their voices out.”

Ball first learned about this population of youth in 2005 after he was invited to speak about his writing career at a juvenile detention center near his home in Michigan.

“I saw these kids coming in, and I thought, ‘My god, they’re just like other children, they’re just in a different situation,’” he said.

As a writer and music lover, Ball knew songwriting could be a positive, creative outlet for these young people. He got other local folk and blues musicians on board, and Lost Voices was born in 2007.

The organization offers weeklong programs where musicians go into juvenile detention centers and residential treatment facilities to work with children in small groups, helping them write songs and find their voice.

“I’m often surprised by the songs they write,” Ball said. “Sometimes they’re silly. But beneath the silliness, they’re really revealing. Sometimes they’re heartbreakingly real.”

Ball has been writing and playing music since he was a child. He made a career out of his passion and became a columnist and author.

He says he’s always known the power and freedom that comes from sharing your story.

“Words can be so powerful,” Ball said. “Expressing yourself is so powerful, and indispensable, really.”

A key element of the Lost Voices program is the trauma-informed care approach, which Ball and his team are specifically trained to implement. They create a nonjudgmental space where kids from all walks of life can freely articulate and work through difficult feelings.

“They’ve lived transactional lives, largely,” Ball said. “So, we want to break that cycle, we don’t want to be transactional. They don’t owe us anything.”

The week begins with the teens writing song lyrics and ends with them performing their song in a concert. For Ball, the concert is key.

“Think about being in a position where nobody ever really cared what you feel,” Ball said. “Now you talk about what you feel, and a whole bunch of people go, ‘Yeah!’ For one moment, they were performing at Carnegie Hall.”

Ball estimates the program has impacted more than 2,500 kids. For Ball and his facilitators, working with these populations and being a sounding board for their traumatic experiences can be taxing at times, but he says it’s well worth it.

“People up front used to say, ‘You can’t save them all,’” Ball said. “Yeah, but I can help that one.”

Mike Ball: We’re not walking in doing the kind of music they normally would listen to. And that’s intentional. If we were doing R&B or rap or pop, whatever it is, they tend to go to their artist that they like and do their thoughts rather than their own thoughts. With us, they kind of have to go off on their own, and it keeps them out of channeling other people. They’re not doing (a famous artist), they’re doing themselves, and that’s really important.

Ball: Lost Voices works primarily in residential placement facilities, which are a pretty specialized situation. These are kids who can’t be with their families. They’re usually too tough to be in regular foster homes where they don’t really have the training or the ability to handle the kids. They’re all trauma survivors, some are trafficking survivors. But they all have different stories, and the point of what we do is let them tell that story.

When you have a kid who’s had problems, they can dig themselves out of it. They can change, because that’s what they’re all about, if you give them the opportunity. If you can give them the self-image, the self-worth, and the opportunity to change, they will change.

Ball: We don’t see a diagnosis sheet. We’re not therapists, so we don’t see all the background. What we know is what they tell us, and we never question them. We work with a group called the Cascaid Project at the University of Michigan School of Nursing, and they’ve helped us articulate and understand every aspect of what we do. They helped us to create a training program so I can teach the other facilitators.

The common denominator for these kids is trauma. And it can come from all kinds of different things. We don’t focus on a particular type of trauma. If a child is struggling with something, we can help them sort it out, whatever it is. The bottom line is we’re nonjudgmental; I think that’s one of the most critical things.

Want to get involved? Check out the Lost Voices website and see how to help.

To donate to Lost Voices via GoFundMe, click here

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