Hooganaga Dreams—The Marinade
Over my career, the kids I’ve been privileged to mentor, taught me quite clearly what the ingredients were–that not only helped them to become engaged; but also sustained their interest and participation over time. Initially it was their reaction to my music and my lyrics. I often noted, how a song or a lyric prompted a discussion or helped to foster a sense of connection it seemed. I noticed this too when we took the kids camping, when we made food together, or engage in creative arts projects. Although I wouldn’t learn about Polyvagal Theory (Porges, 1994) until 2011. When I learned of Stephen Porges’ research and Polyvagal Theory, it helped to further explain my observations, congruent with the constructs of “social engagement” and it helped me to understand my observations over the years, that safety and connection are paramount to “health, growth, and restoration” (Porges, 2021); but even going further in helping to understand how our felt senses of “safety and connection” manifest at the neurophysiological level in the autonomic nervous system and direct implications to overall health and well-being.
I began working in mental health in 1984 and began implementing DIRT GROUP in 2000. Over the years of youth work I had observed specific ingredients which appeared to potentiate the effects of safety and connection which results in “health, growth, and restoration” (Porges, 2021) across a variety of settings. Through my own observations as a practitioner, what had become quite clear was the marinade’s ingredients were inseparable, embodied, and originated in Nature. Whether it be camping or kayaking, growing food, harvesting, and preparing it, or anything to do with creative arts—all the ingredients originated and were inseparable from Nature. These “ingredients” had a potentiating effect over “cookie cutter” ingredients, methods, or models and seemed more akin to what the dominant power differential used to refer to as “savage” and “dirty”. After nearly four decades of congruent observations, I believe DIRT GROUP is an example of an emergent grounded theory which explains this embodied phenomenon, inseparable from Nature, and manifesting in potentiating (additive) positive influence on the function of the Vagus Nerve.
According to Porges (2011, 2017, 2021) Ventral Vagal Complex (VVC) activation produces the felt sensations of safety and connection at the neurophysiological level, and overtime this felt sense of safety and connection increases the myelination of the sensory fibers of the VVC. In addition to the VVC being a powerful influence on immunity, as the myelination of the sensory fibers of the VVC increase due to experiences of safety and connection, overtime it decreases manifestations of distress, anxiety, depression, etc. These things that used to feel like they were “too heavy to lift”, don’t seem so heavy anymore and after time, often no longer inhibit our sense of health and well-being. To me this represents the intention and definition of the “Hooganaga 2 ya!!” greeting my RoadRunners intended and defined in “Hooganaga 2 ya!!”, back in the day. A sense of safety and connection so strong it literally heals the body. My dream is for everyone to experience the “Hooganaga” in “Hooganaga 2 ya!!”
Prior to the schools shuttering in March 2020, children’s and teen’s mental health was already considered at crisis levels. In 2016, the National Children’s Health Survey revealed 50% of youth in need of mental health care were not able to access a mental health professional. In 2019, the CDC reported a 50% increase in suicide for young people 10-24 years of age, and for the subset of 15–19-year-olds, the rate increased 76%. Social isolation has long been associated with increased risk for experiencing significant mental health impairments and is the common denominator for both constructs for the Interpersonal Theory of Suicide: “thwarted belongingness” and “perceived burdensomeness”.
When schools in the United States closed due to the growing threat from of the COVID-19 global pandemic, millions of children and teens were forced into social isolation in a way we have not observed or experienced in modern times. This unexpected shift derailed one of the most predictable social contexts children and families had experienced in the United States over the past century.
As COVID-19 restrictions were implemented, social contexts no longer existed as they had prior to the pandemic. Exacerbating the impacts of social isolation, these barriers and restrictions inhibited opportunities for youth to engage with their peers and others in meaningful ways, resulting in increased mental health needs (Magson, N.R ., et al, 2021). As opportunities for social engagement plummeted and mental health concerns increased, the availability of appropriate services and providers remained inadequate (Auerbach, J. & Miller, B.J., 2020; Kumar, A. & Nayar, K.R. 2021).
Experiencing connection with others is integral to humans’ sense of well-being and safety (Siegel 2011, 2012; Porges 2011, 2017, 2018, 2021; Rosenberg 2017). Social isolation can produce feelings of disconnection to others, feelings of loneliness and depression. Lacking opportunities for social engagement can make people feel anxious and depressed and can result in significant impairments to overall functioning. Conditions of the pandemic kept many people indoors and isolated during the lockdown. People enjoyed the outdoors immensely when public health officials were finally able to encourage outdoor and nature-based activities as a safer way to gather with friends and loved ones while maintaining public safety protocols prior to the vaccine becoming widely available in the United States.
“Adventure education, adventure-based counseling, wilderness adventure, outdoor education, therapeutic camping, cooperative learning, peer mentoring, and service learning” (Brendtro & Strother, 2007, p. 3) are examples of experiential education which have been popular for some time in programs serving youth. These learning opportunities are often viewed as new experiences that are different from their day-to-day routine (Brendtro & Strother, 2007; Michalski, Mishna, Worthington, and Cummings, 2003; Collins, 2003) which fosters interest, meaning, social engagement, and are consistent with theoretical frameworks congruent with Social Justice Youth Work (McDaniels, 2017)
While opportunities for social engagement decreased during the COVID-19 global pandemic, in March of 2020 DIRT GROUP participants successfully pivoted from an in-person community-based model of DIRT GROUP, to a virtual platform on Zoom which we referred to as ‘DIRT GROUP WORLD’. Integrating elements of tasks and adventures for participants to complete at home, in-between sessions, we maintained opportunities for face-to-face social engagement during our twice-weekly, 2-hour Zoom sessions, and participants shared their efforts on the tasks and adventures they were working on. Participants reported it was the most important thing they looked forward to every week.
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