Part 1 of this blog discussed how a mental health relief effort named The Sikh Healing Collective was established to provide support to the Oak Creek Sikh community. This relief effort was in response to the tragic shooting that took place on August 5, 2012 when a gunman killed seven people, including himself, at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. This was truly a collective effort as nearly 50 South Asian and Non-South Asian mental health professionals with varying religious and cultural backgrounds were brought together from 10 states across the country.
After providing six consecutive weeks of trauma-focused intervention to the children, we paused to reflect on our next steps. Rather than assuming we knew what was best for the community, we asked what they wanted going forward. The response was an overwhelming desire to continue groups with an additional focus on fun social and interactive activities. As a result, beginning in November 2012, we launched the Sikh Brother Sikh Sister Mentorship Program.
There are two goals of the mentorship program. The first goal is to provide an emotionally safe and non-judgmental space for children and teens to ask questions and voice concerns. This is something they typically may not feel comfortable doing with their teachers or immigrant parents. The second goal is to monitor the children on a regular basis and bring any behavioral concerns that mentors observe to the attention of a mental health professional.
The children were placed into one of three groups based on age: teen boys, teen girls, or children under age 11. We started with several weeks of ice-breaker activities so the kids could get to know each other better. The teen boys competed in several sports activities and learned more about Sikh history when they participated in a Sikh Trivia Bowl on Super Bowl Sunday.
The teen girls loved the idea of having a place for “girl talk.” They had discussions with their mentors about the positive aspects of the Punjabi culture and identified strong women leaders in Sikh history that inspire them. Early in the group process the female mentors observed clicks being formed, so they discussed how female bullying looks different than male bullying because it uses emotional violence and makes others feel alienated and alone. The following week, one of the teen girls said that she had apologized to another girl whom she had been bullying after realizing how she had been making her feel.
The groups for teen boys and girls were frequently combined. Mentors discussed sensitive topics like the Boston Marathon bombing and connected it to the teens’ feelings about what they had experienced first-hand at their own temple. They asked the teens what they do to feel better when they have negative feelings and had them differentiate positive and negative ways of coping. One of the most valuable gifts the mentors gave the teens was a set of tools to handle life stressors.
The group of children under age 11 was told stories about the Sikh Gurus while their mentors applied the lessons to real life. The children received information about the different ways to react when they are being bullied as well as examples of how to be a helpful vs. hurtful bystander. The mentors engaged the teenagers by having them create and participate in role plays for the younger children and helped them identify whether the role play was an example of appropriate or inappropriate behavior.
One of the mentors is primarily responsible for leading a one-on-one mentorship program for the children requiring individual attention in addition to the group experience. Children that fall in this category are those who both lost their fathers in the shooting and arrived in the country within the past year. These children (and their families) need extra support in adjusting to the mainstream American culture and school system. They also have language barriers and are more likely to need the guidance of positive role models in their lives.
The mentors in this program are four Sikh males and four Sikh females ranging in age from 19-31 years. These eight mentors are part of the Oak Creek Sikh community and regularly attended services at the temple before the tragedy occurred. The mentors consistently lead the same group of children each week in order to build rapport and gradually gain trust. Approximately 60 children in total currently attend one of the three mentorship groups and benefit from them every Sunday.
What is remarkable about each of these mentors is their level of dedication to being positive role models to all the children and teenagers. Every week they are planning activities and discussing relevant life lessons to improve these kids’ futures and give them something more than they had. These mentors lead incredibly busy lives working full-time, going to school full-time, getting into graduate programs, finishing doctoral dissertations, and most importantly, grieving the loss of their loved ones, all the while lifting up their community. They are our real heroes.
The role of the mental health professionals is to support the mentors in the program by assisting them with planning group activities and developing subsequent discussions with the children about lessons learned. They trust that the mentors know what is best for their groups and are leading with a similar approach that the Sikh Healing Collective has taken from the beginning: not driving a personal agenda but rather continuing to have an on-going collaborative dialogue
with the mentors about what support they need. When the mentors feel they are being listened to and given autonomy to create their own program, they feel empowered and continue to grow stronger and more resilient with each passing week.
The mentorship program has been running every Sunday for the last six months. Since then, we have observed some significant changes. Most notably, more children and teenagers attend the temple now than they did before the tragic shooting occurred. Children have increased their knowledge about the Sikh religion and Punjabi culture. They demonstrate greater confidence and pride in being part of the Sikh faith as they engage more with children from other communities. The teen boys and girls have gotten past their initial feelings of anxiety and awkwardness and now encourage one another in team sports. The mentors have gained the trust of the kids, their parents, and the greater community. They regularly ask the kids what activities they want to do going forward, and they work together to make them happen. The kids are texting and emailing their mentors throughout the week to ask questions about going to prom, buying graduation dresses, getting summer jobs, and applying to colleges. Parents trust these mentors as appropriate role models for their children and have expressed relief knowing that they can send their children to their Sikh brothers and Sikh sisters to discuss topics they either do not have information, experience, or comfort addressing on their own.
These mentors and kids had been attending the Oak Creek Sikh temple every Sunday for so many years without really knowing each other on more than just a superficial level. Today, everyone is on a first-name basis. The teen boys who once didn’t get along now sit together, eat together, and have become best friends. The older teen girls who first thought they were too cool for the groups are now actively participating and have even stated a desire to become mentors to the younger children. The consistent and combined efforts of the mentors have cultivated a true sense of community and family.
Connection is at the heart of the Sikh Brother Sikh Sister Mentorship Program. The Oak Creek Sikh community shares a unique bond in having lost six of its members in an act of extreme violence and hate that fateful day last August. There were many ways we could have chosen to respond. We selected love and compassion. We opened our hearts and welcomed people of all faiths and backgrounds to the Sikh temple so communities could begin healing together. Rather than allowing this tragedy to break us, it has strengthened our collective community spirit. It has deepened our conviction in the immeasurable power of love to eradicate ignorance and hate. It has taught us that we are more resilient than we could have ever imagined. It has forced us to closely examine our relationship with ourselves, with God, with each other, and with every stranger who walks into our path. It has awakened us to the fundamental truth that we are all profoundly connected to one another. When we take care of each other, we take care of ourselves.
Puni Kalra has a PhD in Clinical Psychology with a specialization in cross-cultural trauma. For nearly two decades, she has been working with children, women, families, and communities of color who have faced traumatic events. She has co-founded two organizations that were designed to support the education and professional training needs of South Asian psychologists: South Asian Psychological Networking Association (SAPNA) and the Division of South Asian Americans (DoSAA) within the Asian American Psychological Association. These organizations collectively serve over 500 members worldwide.
In addition to being in private practice, Puni is also adjunct faculty at the Center for Creative Leadership where she serves as an executive coach and consultant. She has creatively transferred many of her skills as a trauma psychologist to the corporate world by motivating and inspiring high-potential performers to improve their leadership competencies. She works jointly with corporate leaders and senior executives to develop strategies and skills that get them the results they need. Puni provides executive coaching and consulting to clients throughout the U.S. and across several countries. She works in various industries, including health care, government, education, non-profit, and law enforcement.