Slikkers graduated from Andrews University in 1993 with a Bachelor of Arts in English/communication and has been a full-time assistant professor of social work at Andrews for two years. She also works with Bethany Christian Services where she consults and supervises clinical areas for their Southwest Michigan Immigrant and Refugee programs.
For the last five years, I have been able to work with Bethany Christian Services with unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children. I was given the chance to help develop the foster care and educational program in Southwest Michigan, but more importantly to use my clinical/therapeutic skills to create a trauma-informed environment where the children could feel safe and begin to heal from the emotional and psychological trauma they have witnessed and experienced. This included working with students from Andrews University as interns in the field and in the last two years being involved with students on a full-time basis as social work faculty.
For the past year, I have also been in partnership with Advocates for Southeast Asians and the Persecuted (ASAP Ministries) in the development of trauma awareness programs to be implemented domestically and internationally that can be modified for use with children and adults. We are calling it StepS (Sensory Trauma Education ProgramS). It provides at least three different levels of training, one for those helping refugees (StepS for Helpers), one for refugees themselves (StepS for Healing), and one specifically for children (StepS for Children). StepS to Healing seeks to deliver introductory trauma education and provides intentional ideas and sensory related tools to encourage healing within the context of relationships.
By having been given the ability to develop trauma-informed therapeutic tools and interventions for healing during my years at Bethany, we are now able to use these modalities to share tools and educate people how to understand and begin to heal within their own communities. Because the tools are based on the human senses, they are able to cross culture and languages and begin to heal many who have been so fractured due to fleeing their country of origin. This is very important as most do not have access to professional mental health services.
The scope of this project is as big as God allows. We hope to continue reaching those impacted by displacement, whether they be refugee congregations across this country or in other areas of the world. We are fortunate to have already presented domestically and in a refugee camp in Thailand last March through our partnership with ASAP.
Five years ago I was asked to do it professionally for Bethany Christian Services. I was working in a different program and was asked if I would take this on based on being bilingual and having worked within the Latino community. Initially, the program started with unaccompanied children coming from the border who were only Spanish-speaking. The StepS program developed after conversations with Julia O’Carey, director of ASAP, at the Refugee Conference held at Andrews last fall. This conversation and others like it, which addressed the understanding of the impact of trauma on the brain and the healing that can occur as documented by research and science, were influential in the development of the project. God gives us hope even in such terrible unspeakable situations. Overall, my students and I seek to bring hope and the start of healing by providing awareness of trauma and interventions as we are able.
I have learned that God will surprise you in where He wants you to go. I’m a planner and I would have never imagined this in my future. It is exciting to see new modalities and treatments develop and witness how they can be applied in the field. I encourage students to do this and to stand in awe that in a fractured world God gives us ways to heal and hope.
I also sometimes feel sad by hearing other’s perspective on refugees and immigrants but I continue to go back to Matthew 25 and strive to live my life in that way. At times, I am surprised by the people I serve alongside with and their spirit of service. My students inspire me beyond words! The immigrants and refugees themselves are so beautiful and strong and being with them reminds me of the God who wants restoration for all.
My worldview has also been changed. Now I feel that when I look someone in their eyes and hear their story, how can I not allow this to change me? How can I not respond to them in some way?
Honestly, the most influential part of my work has been the ability to spread awareness and to see hope in relationships. It has been wonderful to provide a bit of safety for kids in our care and impact them for the future. The fact that their little brains experienced some healing while they were in our care and that we can share this information with communities is very influential. I love hearing people say, “I will never think about the brain the same again,” or “I now view all people differently.”
The work that I do has hopefully given hope to those who are struggling and given a trauma perspective and understanding to staff, students and others.
I have seen people be changed when they are able to “name” it (“to name it is to tame it”) and start doing intentional healing. People are thankful when you help them, to reunify them with their children, or keep their children safe here in the U.S. When people begin to see hope that healing is possible it is very uplifting. When someone tells you their story and you see visibly that their body has released some of their pain it is evident that “what’s shareable is bearable.” Students and staff have said that seeing things through the trauma lens has changed the way they view others as “what’s happened to you” versus “what’s wrong with you.” Sometimes it’s as simple as having shared and educated on the importance of safe physical touch being healing (something as simple as a hug) and having a refugee hug and cling to you because they felt safe enough to do that and may not have felt that form of human connection before. I had a young mother do this when we were in the refugee camp in Thailand. That impacted me greatly, and I believe it impacted her greatly as well.
We hope our work has impacted those we serve, but I know our work is impacting our students. In their eyes I see their growing understanding of the plight of people, but also the hope that there can be healing.