Growing up is like building a house and childhood is where the foundation of mental strength is built to meet the challenges of adulthood. Logically, a strong foundation is mandatory before moving on to the next step of constructions. However, life never halts and fragility becomes untimed bombs buried underground. As we grow up, pressures and challenges trigger the bombs and the negative effect on adulthood life is beyond imagination. Child maltreatment and dysfunctional families for instance, are common factors in the disruption of an ideally strong childhood foundation.
The ACE Pyramid represents the conceptual framework for the ACE Study, which has uncovered how adverse childhood experiences are strongly related to various risk factors for disease throughout a lifespan, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Photo credit: SMAHSA)
The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) presents the effect of childhood trauma on adult life. The study was conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States. With an average age of 57, all of the 17,337 study participants had jobs and good health care. Even though life seemed promising on the surface, the study showed that compared to those who haven’t had any adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), participants who had undergone at least four ACEs were associated with a 700% increase in alcoholism. Alarmingly, those having more than six ACEs were associated with a 3000% increase in attempted suicide. Such facts will likely lead to the creation of a cycle of violence and an increase in the number of victims among newer and future generations. According to WHO’s report, one in six maltreated boys and girls go on to become violent offenders ; and one in eight sexually abused boys go on to become sexual offenders.
The healing of childhood trauma is a long-term fight. Unfortunately, the resources of governments and NGOs are scarce and public support systems focus mostly on juveniles. In Taiwan, the I-Life Association, founded by Leina Lai and Renming Yang, has been providing solutions to empower victims from ages 16 to 25 to reinforce the foundation of their mental health and to be the change agents of their futures.
How I-Life Began
I-Life’s eight-year journey started with Leina’s background. At the age of fourteen, Leina arrived from school one day and waited for her mother to come home for dinner. But the parent who recently took her away from a violent father never came back home. After that, Leina had tried numerous ways including falsifying the age on her ID to get legal jobs and working in nightclubs during college to support herself.
Luckily, she didn’t get lost on the wrong path. A psychology counselor inspired her to get a degree in Social Work in college and to set up a life-long goal of helping young people heal from childhood trauma, build self-confidence, and find their passion in life.
From left to right: Renming Yang and Leina Lai. Leina received the Purple Ribbon Award in 2018 - the highest recognition in protecting victims of violence in Taiwan. (Photo credit: I-Life Association)
The Long-term Partner Program
I-Life’s systematic Long-term Partner Program aims to help young people from ages 16 to 25 to properly heal from trauma and build the confidence and capacity to live independently and healthily. The program includes regular one-on-one counseling, courses in art and career potential development, material-free adventures, and customized activities.
Unlike conventional counseling, a single session can take as long as three to four hours and is customized based on the participant’s background. I-Life also works with professional artists from various disciplines including music, painting, and photography, to let young people explore their interests or simply just find calmness in art. Material-free adventures was inspired by I-Life’s 99-day cycling around Taiwan challenge that urged participants to avoid spending money but rather ask for help from strangers in exchange of doing them a service. Its purpose is to push the participants out of their comfort zones to understand the world from a new perspective. I-Life aims to inspire young people that no matter how they were treated in the past, they can be change agents and are capable of being the person they aspire to be.
K-San (not his real name) has been part of the program for two years. He grew up with a violent father and his mother wasn’t aware that he repressed his pain. He blindly followed others’ suggestions to avoid making mistakes which led him to be quite a perfectionist. After K-San got admitted to the best university in Taiwan and started an independent life, things started to fall apart. It wasn’t until he received his final expulsion warning that K-San felt that he needed a change.
K-San learned about I-Life in one of the self-development courses provided by an NGO partnering with the government for juvenile placement programs. His two-year journey has led him to a confident and purposeful life. Aside from rebuilding a healthy relationship with his family, K-San has decided to shift to a degree in Social Work to be able to help young people like him in the future.
“You can never find a connection between who I am today and who I was two years ago. I didn’t really know how to communicate. I was an extreme perfectionist but I never understood the purpose of my hard work. I still have a long way to go before I achieve my goal, but at least now I have the confidence and a clear motivation. I can never imagine my life before I met I-Life,” K-San shared.
Long-term Partner Program’s counseling is customized based on the participant’s background. Leina (right) may go to the participant’s home to help optimize the indoor setup to build up a new environment. (Photo credit: I-Life Association)
Aside from providing opportunities for learning and exploration, I-Life has an ambitious vision in mind to make the treatment complete. “Soon we hope to build a youth dorm for the participants to have a temporary space to live in. During the process of healing and making change happen, it’s essential to alleviate the disturbance from the original environment. It’s also very encouraging when you have peers who have the same determination to work together. They will eventually go back to their families to further improve relationships when they’re ready. They’ll be the change agents,” Renming, I-Life’s CEO said.
Some of the program’s participants joined I-Life as staff after witnessing the change on themselves. “I learned to manage my fear of rejection and how to communicate my needs. I-Life’s program has helped me realize that my weakness is acceptable and I’m worthy to be treated kindly without condition. I hope I can be of help to those who have had similar experiences as mine,” Jie (not her real name) shared. Jie joined I-Life’s program in 2013 and then became an official member of the association. “I hope this kind of solution will be more reachable to more people,” she added.
“When the survivors are ready, they can be the change agent of the issues their families are facing. By empowering more survivors, we’re improving further more social issues.” (Photo credit: I-Life Association)
Plans for the Future
In five years, I-Life aims to expand their service scope to support 50 to 70 program participants simultaneously. I-Life is also working closely with the government authorities and NGOs to expand the threshold of the qualification to be accepted in the public support system. Currently, I-Life is accepting donations from the public and corporates and subsidies from United Way of Taiwan to support its operations. “We hope to move faster to make an impact and inspire more people to create more I-Life in different cities in Taiwan or even in other countries,” Renming said.
Behind child maltreatment and dysfunctional families, are countless complicated reasons and issues to be resolved. Survivors have witnessed and undergone the pain. I-Life’s experience is a demonstration that when survivors are empowered and are given proper healing from the trauma, they can be powerful change agents not only to their own families but also to those who like them, are suffering from the past. Today’s generation will stop tolerating trauma and march on with a better life.
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