SALEM — A Salem-based agency is making special deliveries to the homes of some of the area's most vulnerable children during the pandemic.
Children's Friend and Family Services has been dropping off "activity boxes" every week to about 40 homes in Essex County as part of a new program called Discovery Within. The boxes are filled with items designed to encourage activities such as drawing, writing, gardening and baking by the children, who range in age from 9 to 18 and are enrolled with the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health.
"We wanted to help DMH with something that might be falling through the cracks in the pandemic response," said Stephanie Sladen, executive director of CFFS.
Sladen said CFFS reached out to the Department of Mental Health to ask how it could help during the coronavirus pandemic, when children with mental health issues have not been able to attend therapeutic sessions, summer camps and other respite programs.
"We said, 'What would be engaging enough for a child and also give a parent a break?'" Sladen said. "We landed on this idea of everyone loves mail deliveries. What would happen if a mystery box landed on somebody's doorstep every week?"
CFFS asked local businesses to help supply the items for the boxes. Art Supply Wholesale of Beverly provided arts and crafts supplies. Appleton Farms in Ipswich donated seedlings for gardening activities. Carolyn's Farm Kitchen of Haverhill put together kits to make strawberry shortcake. Muddle Puddle Toys of Marblehead also contributed.
The staff at CFFS assembles the boxes at its Salem office and delivers them to the homes, then uses Zoom to oversee the activities with the children.
According to CFFS, one Gloucester mother said her 13-year-old son could not entertain himself with his toys, but made slime and wrote and drew in his journal with the help of Discovery Within. Sladen said one of her staffers who is certified in makeup is doing virtual makeup tutorials with some of the older girls in the program.
"We try to personalize it with activities that align with kids' interests," Sladen said. "It's not cookie-cutter."
"Many times these are kids who have already had hospitalization, so these are kids with pretty serious mental health issues," she said. "It's finding that moment for the child to have some joy."
Children's Friend and Family Services, which is a division of the Justice Resource Institute, began in 1837. It has a staff of about 365 and provides counseling and other support for more than 3,000 Essex County families that have suffered loss, trauma and mental health issues. When the pandemic hit, the agency switched to telehealth and provided dozens of Chromebooks to families so that therapy sessions could continue.
Sladen said CFFS had not previously worked with the families who are enrolled in the Department of Mental Health and are now participating in the Discovery Within program.
"Our hope is we can engage with a whole new group of kids we weren't working with before," she said.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2535 or firstname.lastname@example.org.