How one Philadelphia after-school program works to be trauma-informed

By Stell Simonton, YouthToday

On an afternoon in October, kids in the Sunrise of Philadelphia after-school program made tissue-paper marigolds, assembled little altars and created masks. It was the Day of the Dead celebration held by Sunrise partner, Fleisher Art Memorial.

They wrote poems about people who were no longer with them, either lost to death or simply separated across distance — a possibility in this largely immigrant and refugee community.

The activity gave them a chance to explore loss and sadness, which — perhaps unintentionally — fit right into Sunrise’s focus of being a trauma-informed organization.

“One of the things you can do with your staff and students [in a trauma-informed organization] is help them make sense of their experiences,” said Marina Fradera, trauma and curriculum specialist at Sunrise. She is leading the effort to integrate an understanding of trauma into Sunrise’s programs and practices.

Out-of-school time organizations across the country are increasingly exploring ways to serve students impacted by trauma, but few are taking a comprehensive approach, according to a report recently released by the expanded learning unit in the Los Angeles County Office of Education and by LA’s Best.

Most begin by using their resources to train staff, wrote report author Jimena Quiroga Hopkins.

But how do they incorporate the new knowledge into their programs?

Fradera said the four principles delineated by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) are a guide for organizations:

  • Realize the widespread impact of trauma and the potential paths for recovery
  • Recognize the signs and symptoms
  • Respond by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures and practices
  • Resist retraumatization.

“Trauma-informed care is often referred to as a paradigm shift as well as a set of strategies,” she said.

But practices can be implemented in a structured way, she said.


Sunrise is a 20-year-old nonprofit that serves about 1,000 students in after-school programs at five K-8 schools and one high school, most of which are in South Philadelphia. It’s a low-income area where most of the kids are impacted by poverty.

A 2012 survey of adults’ adverse childhood experiences in urban areas of Philadelphia found that 40% had witnessed violence while growing up (seeing a stabbing, shooting or beating) and 34% reported racial or ethnic discrimination. Twenty-four percent had lived in a household with a member who was mentally ill, and nearly 13% had a household member who was sentenced or served time in prison.

Adverse childhood experiences are not the same thing as trauma, but trauma occurs when the events overwhelm one’s ability to cope.

“Kids have it tough in our community,” said Vincent Litrenta, founder and executive director of Sunrise. It’s always been important to be trauma-sensitive, he said.

Through a 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant and assistance from the local United Way, Sunrise began training staff in 2018 at Lakeside, a Philadelphia trauma training institute and operator of therapeutic schools.

Currently 60 staff members have been trained, and 15, including two directors and all site supervisors, have taken a longer course, Fradera said. Sunrise also brought partners to the training, including people from the Promise neighborhood where one after-school site is located, and the refugee services agency SEAMAAC.

Giving staff the tools and resources to address their own stress is an important element.

Staff members devise a “safety plan,” Fradera said. She is referring to actions as simple as drinking a glass of water or taking deep breaths.


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