Petaluma nonprofit counsels youth

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When Douglas Lerch began his career as an educator, working with special needs and at-risk children, he noticed a common problem while making an effort to connect with his students.

“The classes had 35 kids,” said Lerch, “and I couldn’t reach out individually to each kid and there weren’t counselors at the schools to support them so I recognized there was a need for more support for kids to deal with their emotional struggles.”

After going back to graduate school and becoming a licensed therapist, Lerch founded Seeds of Awareness in 2013, hoping to aid families without resources to find therapy and other solutions to their adversities.

Seeds of Awareness provides solutions using mindfulness and nature-based programs. Although the organization continues to utilize graduate students as volunteers, postgraduate students and licensed therapists are also involved in the programs Seeds of Awareness offers. Using students hoping to gain experience working with children allows support for youth to remain low-cost and accessible.

Programming — which includes mindfulness education, social skills development, counseling and after-school programs — is offered at 20 schools across the Bay Area, including Live Oak Charter School and Petaluma Junior High in Petaluma.

A significant part of the education the nonprofit arranges is in the form of an after-school program and series of summer camps called Fiddleheads. Fiddleheads, according to Lerch, is largely designed to assist children with special needs.

“We work a lot with special needs students in our social skills program called Fiddleheads,” said Lerch, “where we bring small groups of children into nature and help them form friendships and learn social skills and get support for their emotional challenges. Some children are on the Autism spectrum, some children are children that struggle socially, a lot of the kids have developmental delays in those groups.”

Lerch adds that using mindfulness in the loosely-scheduled curriculum allows youth to understand communication and how to express their hardships to others.

“Mindfulness is a tool that we can teach to a child and that they can take with them the rest of their life, and it’s something that is just as simple as teaching them how to breathe when they are feeling stressed,” said Lerch, “and giving them a set of tools that allow them to feel calm and feel OK. The other part of mindfulness is teaching children how to get along with each other and how to recognize when another person is feeling upset or impacted negatively by them, and how to adjust their behaviors accordingly … (giving) the children more choice and more opportunity to navigate their social interactions in a more positive way.”’

Embracing nature is the other key factor in Seeds of Awareness’ education. Lerch says activities in the outdoors help children avoid disconnecting from the world as a result of technology in a developing society.

“By introducing children to nature and by providing them with a regular time and place to connect to nature, we’re both giving their nervous systems almost a reset, where we’re really helping them to feel connected in a different way, and we’re also giving them a resource of a way that they can take care of themselves when things are hard,” said Lerch.

In the future, Seeds of Awareness hopes to continue its education by networking more, which it has already accomplished with Medi-Cal. Limited-income families with Medi-Cal coverage are able to use counseling services offered by Seeds of Awareness for no cost. Essentially, according to Lerch, the organization simply is looking to become more accessible to those demographics that need their help most.

“We’re a very young organization doing very impactful and important work in helping to create a peaceful world and our potential is very expensive,” said Lerch, “and we’re open and looking for collaborators to support us in manifesting the world that we’re wanting to create.”

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