Expanded program helps underprivileged kids in need of mental health support

NORTH MIAMI, Fla. – While the pandemic has been stressful for all of us, children are being especially hard hit.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports a surge in mental health emergencies among kids nationwide, which has led to a new effort at the Police Athletic League in North Miami.

Like other PAL centers, it was started years ago to serve as a vital resource for at-risk children in the community.

“The purpose was to take children who were just hanging out, whether it’s latch key kids who are home alone or kids who are just hanging out, get involved in athletics,” Police Chief Larry Juriga said.

The North Miami PAL also provides guidance on academics and social behavior and recently partnered with the Florida Mental Health Coalition to help children who are struggling emotionally.

“We want to focus on the brains, the body, the heart and the mind,” Juriga said.

Once a week, a mental health specialist visits the center to give the kids a chance to express and process their thoughts and emotions.

“It’s so important and what better place to do it than in a divergent program,” said mental health specialist Dr. Riwa Kassar.

“I’m so proud of these children that they are open to it and see the benefits of it fairly quickly so that’s really amazing,” added Adam Hertzman, Broward Chairman of the Florida Mental Health Coalition.

Fourteen-year-old Tatiana Fleurissaint is one of those who has benefitted from the initiative.

She recently lost two family members to COVID-19.

“I’m not the type of person that lets my feelings be displayed, so Dr. Riwa helped me project my feelings and not keep them inside because it was actually harming me,” Fleurissaint said.

It’s part of the reason she and other children at the North Miami PAL see the officers and staff as extended family.

“I feel safe -- it’s my safe place,” Fleurissaint said.

Because the program is based on early intervention and prevention, those involved can see if a child is in need of more individually focused one-on-one therapy.

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