Leslie A. Abbey of Prairie Village is a licensed clinical social worker and founder of Inspired Minds Kansas City, IMKC.org. In July, Abbey began leading Teen Chat discussion groups for urban youths on Monday nights at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch of the Kansas City Public Library, KCLibrary.org/Bluford. This conversation took place at the library.
What is Teen Chat like?
Teen Chat is pandemonium (laughs). Especially when we were up to 23 kids. It jumped from seven kids the first week to 13 to 23. I started out serving chips and cookies but quickly realized the kids were hungry, so now I buy really big pizzas from Costco. That comes out of my own pocket, not any foundation money.
As far as topics, I ask the kids what they want to talk about. They have said sexism, racism, STDs, peer pressure, all kinds of things. Last week they wanted to talk about safe sex. It happened to be all guys that night, so we talked about how to treat a girlfriend. The week before we talked about careers and college, how to take the ACT, where you can find practice ACTs.
Why did you start Inspired Minds Kansas City?
I found out a young girl at Cristo Rey High School who had been sexually abused had to take three buses to come see me. I thought, “Enough.” No one should have to work that hard to get mental health services.
So I started looking for ways to open an office in the urban core. I am talking with the junior college system to get an office at 18th and Prospect to do individual psychotherapy. In the meantime, the Kansas City Public Library has a health and wellness initiative in place at the Bluford branch, and I am the mental health component of that. In September we are going to start a group for survivors of domestic violence and also a group for adults on stress relief.
How are the people you see with mental health issues in Prairie Village different or the same as people with mental health issues in the urban core?
They are the same in that you can have a Mission Hills kid be molested by their father and have an alcoholic mother. The difference is, in the urban core I see more economic impoverishment and relational impoverishment.
What do you mean by relational impoverishment?
A lot of the kids I see here — and this is true of the adults here, too — don’t have enough healthy, stable adults in their life. I don’t see much of that in Prairie Village. Relational impoverishment makes everything else more difficult, but it also makes my work very rewarding because the kids respond so strongly to me, because I care. I get a lot of spontaneous hugs.
What surprised you about the kids here?
They all want to get out of the urban core. That surprised me. Another thing is how smart the kids are, considering the challenges of the school system. Two of them, identical twins, walk from here to the Writers Place in Westport (about three miles). Both of the kids have won poetry awards, and I’m sure their IQs are higher than mine.
Another surprise was, you hear about poor kids being raised by single moms, but a lot of the kids I see are being raised by single dads because the moms are drug addicts.
What is your best advice for laypeople about how to engage with that kid in the community or at school or in the extended family that is difficult for whatever reason?
The best thing to do, if it is appropriate for the kid to be in a car with you, is to drive the kid somewhere to get a soda or something. Kids talk better in a car because they don’t have to look at you. It’s the same way guys communicate in a bar — they sit side by side and look straight ahead, whereas women will turn to face each other fully. If it isn’t appropriate to be in a car, you can take a walk side by side or sit on a bench.
The other thing I have found is that difficult kids don’t feel cared for and don’t feel listened to. So if you approach them and just show interest, that can change everything.