Graduate's Innovative Idea Helping At-Risk Children
By Eric Breier
One of the last classes Alec Frank took during his undergraduate studies at Cal State San Marcos turned out to be one of the most impactful.
It was “Risk and Resiliency in Childhood and Adolescence,” a requirement for his child and adolescent development major. Frank’s professor, Sharon Hamill, had one message above all others that she wanted students to take away from the class.
“I told them to always remember how important it is to have an adult who cares about you,” Hamill said. “It changes everything. Just an engagement with someone where you really hear them, you know them, and they feel valued, that in and of itself helps to make young people – and all of us actually – very much more resilient.”
It’s a lesson that stayed with Frank after graduating in 2019, and one he continued to keep top of mind as he earned his master’s in social work from CSUSM two years later. Today, he’s putting that advice to work in his role as a therapist at Casa de Amparo, a short-term residential therapeutic program for girls ages 12-18 who have been victims of child abuse and neglect.
“We learned in that class that the biggest predictor for kids building resiliency skills is having a trusted adult in their life, just a trusted adult that they can connect with,” said Frank, recalling Hamill’s course.
“We talked about this idea of buffers. If a kid is going down the wrong path, a buffer gets in the way and steers them to a different path. And that buffer is a trusted, caring adult. I remember thinking, ‘I want to be a buffer for these kids.’ That was a huge moment in my life when it came to why I want to do this work.”
Frank was an intern at Casa de Amparo, which is three miles north of campus, while pursuing his master’s. His positive demeanor, energy and rapport with both clients and staff led to his being hired full time after graduation. A member of CSUSM’s basketball team while a student, Frank saw a need among the girls at Casa de Amparo for a health program that would positively impact their physical and mental well-being.
The result was his creation last March of an incentive-based workout program. Children at Casa de Amparo are given a weekly allowance, and Frank worked with the organization’s administration to provide financial incentives for the biweekly workouts.
“We see so many of our kids who haven't had a healthy lifestyle modeled for them,” said Erin Gospodarec, Casa de Amparo’s chief operating officer. “Being able to see them focus on their physical health and how that is improving their overall mental health has just been dramatic.”
Frank’s program includes five exercises – regular pushups, modified pushups, planks, wall sits and running. He intentionally chose exercises that require no equipment and would allow the girls to easily do them outside of the formal biweekly workouts. He even created an additional incentive to help motivate the girls to continue doing the exercises on their own.
Girls receive $1 extra in their allowance for each exercise they complete, meaning they can earn an additional $5 if they complete all five exercises. They can earn up to $5 more by beating their previous record ($1 for each record broken).
If the girls see that they can set a goal and surpass it when it comes to pushups or wall sits, Frank said they’ll learn that they can apply that to other parts of their life, too.
“The reality is lots of these kids have been abused,” he said. “So they’ve had their physical bodies taken from them in some ways. And now, because of that experience, they no longer feel in control their physical bodies. Doing these types of exercises, doing this workout program, it teaches them to regain control of their physical bodies.”
And that, Hamill noted, is what separates Frank’s program apart.
“It's not just an exercise class,” she said. “It's really about learning how to say, ‘I can take control over my own body, my own behavior. And I've got this person here who cares about me and is going to support my efforts.’ In many cases, it might be the first time in their life that anybody's ever done that.”
The positive feedback Frank has received, both from participants and professionals, has him examining how he might expand the program. He is meeting with representatives from CSUSM’s Innovation Hub to learn more about ways in which he can grow it.
But the goal isn’t about building a business, it’s about having a lasting impact on at-risk children.
“I've been a teacher for 35 years, and I've never had a student that was so intuitive and so engaged – and I've had lots of really smart students,” Hamill said. “Alec is the kind of person who you meet, and he changes things for you. There's an expression that says ‘Be the person who makes other people believe in good people,’ and Alec is that person.”
Eric Breier, Interim Assistant Director of Editorial and External Affairs
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