Sanctuary: Blog

What Really Happened?

Submitted by: Nelson Urena, Faculty, Sanctuary Institute


Along with the rest of the nation, I grieve over the deaths of 20 innocent and precious children. It is these moments that really call for us to be emotionally intelligent and ask the right questions. I learned about the events in Newtown CT, via social media and it immediately became clear to me how shocking and traumatic this event has been for our entire nation. Of all the comments I read via social media the common theme has seemed to be "how could someone be so evil?"

Not immune to the trauma of such event, I also lost center and began to question my safety and the safety of my loved ones. Immediately I began to point fingers at what I thought was at the root of this "evil." It seemed to me at the moment, that we as a nation need to address the issue of gun control, and that there need to be more rules around how individuals gain access to guns. As a result of this line of thought I entered into many heated arguments around this issue, arguments which of course did nothing for me but create more division during a time in which we need to be more united. In many ways I allowed myself to be pulled into a reenactment which our nation has been engaged in since the drafting of our constitution.

It was not until after I slept on the issue that I was able to come to center and begin to see this event through a trauma informed lens. This morning I came to the sobering realization that I had been missing the very point which we, as Faculty of the Sanctuary Institute, stress to be the important issue when analyzing violent behaviors. So I fired up my computer and found the same questions being asked about the gentleman who committed this act of violence, "how could he be so evil?"

One of my favorite literary characters, Atticus Finch, tells us that in order to understand what drives people's ill intentions, we have to "step inside a man's skin, and walk around in it." And so in my state of shock and disbelief about how a person could do such a thing, and what was "wrong with this guy," I took Atticus's advice and attempted to step inside this man's skin because I really just could not come to terms with why and or how such a terrible thing could have occurred.

I think what Atticus tells us is that we have to be able to ask the right questions... "What has happened" to people and communities to lead them to act in such violent ways. It may be too soon to have any answers to this question as they pertain to the incident at Sandy Hook, but what I have learned over years of working in this field is that every behavior has a history. Thus it is important that we as a community of practitioners, citizens, politicians, stake holders and parents begin to look at these sort of events critically and ask the right questions before we premature problem solve and point fingers at what we believe to be the root of all this "evil." I think that asking these types of questions will help us come closer to identifying and addressing the real issues which are at the root of violence in our communities. What really has happened to this man (and is continuously happening in our communities) to cause so many mass shootings in our current history? Finally what can we do as a community to minimize the effects of the toxic stress and allostatic load we all face on a daily basis? Until we begin asking the right questions we will continue to blow out the smoke while ignoring the fire.


What a Feeling...

Submitted by: Maxine Reddy, Faculty, Sanctuary Institute


Earlier this month I had the honor and pleasure to deliver a keynote speech to the attendees of the Nebraska Association of Homes and Services for Children. For me to have the opportunity to address a room filled with service providers, about the Sanctuary Model and its benefits to organizations, was a dream come true. I have been exposed to the Model for many years and felt excitement as I began to prepare my story. However, my excitement did not transfer quickly or easily onto paper; well, the computer screen. I had so many thoughts that I wanted to be sure to share: the incredible change that I was a part of at Green Chimneys, where we implemented the Model, the transformations I have seen at other organizations that have taken the road to Sanctuary, the wonderful and imaginative people I have come into contact with through my Sanctuary journey, and the truly fun ways I have seen these concepts move from the original five-day training, to the steering committee, the core team, the staff and clients and customers. I am a true believer that if we make things fun, more people will be interested and involved.

As I had once again the privilege of listening to Dr. Sandra Bloom present a session on Trauma Theory, I decided that this concept would be the framework in which I would tell my story. In addition to preparing the didactic component of the speech (of course I was taking copious notes) I started to think about how understanding trauma theory has helped me in my work and with people in general. I decided to focus on the Sanctuary principles of (1) understanding that all human beings have experienced adversity in some way, and (2) changing the question we ask from ‘what’s wrong with you?’ to ‘what happened to you?’.

I shared my personal stories of how I have come to change my lens when interacting with co-workers, customers, friends and strangers; and the wonderful way this changed my relationship with myself. I began to be less critical and demanding of perfection. I also shared a very moving experience with the group about a small village in southeast Alaska called Elfin Cove; population 24 in the summer months (due to the abundant fishing opportunities), 10 in the winter months after all the seasonal members leave. I saw a man on the docks (there are no streets, only docks in this town built on the water’s edge) acting very strangely. I made the determination that he was ‘on something’ and made my way along as quickly as I could. That evening, back with my tour group, this small village and this man was the talk at the dinner table. Then someone, later I found out he was a doctor, offered that this man has Huntington’s disease, a debilitating illness. In that moment of understanding, I thought of this person in terms of what has happened to him, and my experience of what I had witnessed out on the docks completely changed. My fear was replaced with compassion.

So I told my stories and related them to components of trauma theory and felt that I had done Dr. Bloom and my colleagues proud. So, to put a word to my feeling on this day of my first opportunity to deliver a keynote speech, I feel proud of myself and exhilarated to be a part of the Sanctuary Institute.

In the Midst of the Storm, We Continue to Create Hope

Submitted by: Alexandria Connally, Assistant Principal, Orchard School at ANDRUS


I am writing this three days after the east coast was hit by Superstorm Sandy. As I sit in the cafeteria on my iPad,  I am surrounded by teachers on their laptops, extension cords, wireless cards and the sound of tapping on computer keys. The Orchard School and many of the staff members are still without power. Trees block roads, the NYC subway is still not working and entire neighborhoods have been washed away. In the last four days I’ve received numerous phone calls, emails and texts from parents, colleagues and leadership. There is an unspoken expectation that we will all take care of one another because it is built into our culture.

In the midst of the storm we continue to create a therapeutic community. Today 95%,  of the staff were able to come to work, some from as far away as Long Island and Middletown. Today , while most schools were closed we taught 100% of our children.  In the midst of the storm we nurtured 100% of our children.

This morning, while visiting an English Language Arts class, I heard a student explaining how to rebuild after the storm. He said, “Although our community was devastated by Sandy, we have to persevere. Even when things are really terrible we have to understand that things will get better. We just need to help one another through this difficult time.” As I walked away beaming with pride I understood that it is just as important to teach students to be socially responsible as it to teach them the 3Rs. We have taught this generation of students to carry the beacon of hope in the midst of the storm.

Stable Truths

Submitted by David McCorkle, Sanctuary Institute Faculty


I have been doing Five Day Trainings since the beginning of the Sanctuary Institute. One of the riches of the trainings in the beginning was working with a team of trainers. We had different training styles and learned from each other. Over the years, we have paired down the number of trainers in the interest of efficiency. In October, at The Crossnore School in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, I again co facilitated a Training with a team of trainers but only two were human, the other four trainers were Dakotah, Goldie, Rock Star and Willow. They are horses and a part of the Equine Therapy Stable at Crossnore. The other two people were the Sanctuary Co-ordinator, Kelly Smith and the Equine Therapist, Melissa Parlier. The three of us had decided to utilize the learning power that we had observed with the Crossnore children in Equine Therapy. We decided to use the horses in the Organizational Culture and Barriers and Obstacles segments of our training. We would not use bridles or a lead rope. It was a first and not only was I nervous about working with the horses, I wasn't sure that they would agree to follow the training agenda.

The horses did agree to train us but in their way. We gathered in a standing circle for the beginning of our afternoon training. When we went back to our chairs, the horses were standing in or around our chairs. They clearly were ready to start teaching us. What they taught was that you have to speak clearly and gently and your posture must show love, respect and trust. The second we were dishonest or tensed up, they wouldn't budge. When we relaxed into respecting each other, they led us through the Sanctuary Seven Commitments and SELF as we participated in the exercises. When we felt Safe, they were safe. When we worked on managing our Emotions, they were helpful. When we worked through our Losses of being in control , they trusted us. They practiced Future by showing us how feelings influence others and how our fears can be barriers to creating a new climate of mutual trust. They also showed us that our ways of overcoming obstacles can be very limited and unimaginative. Some stepped over the barriers while others simply decided to walk around the barriers. Others just decided to dismantle the barriers in a very strategic way. One gentle push of a hoof and the barriers came tumbling down. And all of this was done safely and side by side with us. The Evaluations of our training day were filled with comments that the trainees learned so much about Sanctuary by getting help from our horse trainers. Almost everyone, requested that every future training include the equine trainer team. The horse trainers deeply and completely taught us that we learn most fully not just by talking but by experiencing.


The Gift of a Complaint

Submitted by: Sarah Yanosy, Director of the Sanctuary Institute

Today was not my day. I had three different conversations with three different people who felt compelled to let me know they were dissatisfied, disappointed or disillusioned with some part of how the Sanctuary Institute had managed things. As its leader, I take these conversations both very seriously and very personally. Each of the three referenced completely different situations, so I did not even find the luxury of resolving one big problem with several different people. Oh, no. Each conversation brought a new wave of knowledge about the tenderness of feelings and the ease with which they can be injured...and a new wave of nausea along with that knowledge.

Part way through my third difficult conversation today, I had a bit of a revelation. At first I thought that I had simply lost my marbles, but dismissed that in favor of the belief that I had gained some insight. Here was said insight: I realized that the initiators of each of these conversations had actually given me a gift by calling to tell me their complaints.

Yes, that's it. You may now also be questioning the location of my marbles, but here is why I think it was an insight: Rather than holding on to feelings that could fester into toxicity, these three people reached out for repair. Rather than stifling emotions that could become quick fodder for reenactment, they offered me the chance to create a new foundation of understanding by giving me the chance to share another viewpoint, missing information or an apology in one case. I know that the stories they brought to me about their experiences were radically different from the stories that I had constructed about the exact same events. By sharing their stories and giving me the opportunity to share mine, we were able to create an appreciation for the complexity we may have missed and a shared vision for the future.

I have found that many times, going a few rounds with another person over something we both feel strongly about can result in deeper respect, enhanced communication and a sturdier platform for the next time we don't see eye to eye. That is certainly how I feel about the three people I spoke with today. I hope they feel the same.