Volunteer Makes Sense of Work at Milwaukee Inner City School

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IVC Milwaukee volunteer Jean Talken transforms a storage room at St. Catherine’s Catholic Elementary School to a therapy space called a sensory room.

For Jean Talken, a rainbow’s end isn’t a pot of gold.

It’s a small room at St. Catherine’s Catholic Elementary School in Milwaukee, where kids can deal with the traumas of growing up in tough homes and even tougher neighborhoods.

Talken’s journey to St. Catherine’s as an IVC volunteer began five years ago, the day before her mother, Mary Lou Meurer, died.

“Look for the rainbow,” Meurer mysteriously told her daughter that day.

Since then, Talken has followed her mother’s rainbow — literally — until it led her to St. Catherine’s, where a vast majority of the school’s 160 children are from low-income homes in one of Milwaukee’s toughest neighborhoods. There she is building a so-called sensory room, a place where the kids learn to process the often overwhelming emotions that result from the traumas they may experience at home and in their communities. Time in the room helps them calm and soothe themselves so they can return to the classroom ready to learn.

The school’s rainbow connection to Talken’s mother began in late 2016, during a ministry meeting she attended at the behest of her brother. She happened to sit next to IVC Milwaukee Regional Director Monica Meagher, who spoke to her briefly about the startup of the organization in the region and the need for volunteers.

But she shelved the encounter. She wasn’t ready to volunteer. She had just returned “home” to Milwaukee after more than a decade in Chicago working as a public school nurse. There she had worked with children with special needs and learned about and used a sensory room.

“I was praying a lot that God guide me, give me clarity and keep my mind and heart open to whatever was going to be,” Talken says of her return to her family roots in Milwaukee. “Trust the Master Plan — that was my mother’s advice.”

There came a nudge toward that plan a month later, when she happened to read a reflection from her Jesuit prayer app. It was written by the founder of IVC Chicago. Then soon after, she received an email from Meagher inviting her to an information session.

At the meeting, Talken learned about St. Catherine’s. It seemed a familiar place somehow, so she did some research. It was the same school and church, where her grandmother walked daily to attend Mass.

She looked for the school on Google Maps and clicked on the 360-viewer.  In the picture was a rainbow.

At the same time, IVC’s Meagher had met with St. Catherine’s and asked what they thought IVC volunteers could do for them. The principle’s immediate answer: Someone who can help build and run a sensory room.

A storage room at St. Catherine’s Catholic Elementary School would be transformed into a sensory room, a place where children can safely process the overwhelming emotions that arise from traumatic experiences in their homes and communities.

“A majority of our students have endured trauma in their lives and come to school with a lot of added stresses,” says acting Principle Lisa Burton. “A sensory room can provide our students with a therapeutic space to release some of their emotions and stresses in a safe, productive environment.”

 

It sealed the deal for Talken.

“If we can be the connectors, plugging the lights into a socket and seeing the Christmas tree light up … if that’s what we can provide, then let’s do it,” says Meagher of IVC’s role linking Talken with St. Catherine’s. “It’s such an affirmation that when good people want to give and you make the connection to a great need, there is such an outflow of good and grace and social change before our eyes.”

Talken began working at St. Catherine’s in August, clearing a room that had been used for storage. She painted over the room’s vibrant pink-purple to a calming blue.

“She has led this entire project,” Burton says. “Not only has she done the research and met with professionals … she has a vision of what she would like to put in this room and how she would like it to be run.”

Under Talken’s direction, the room will be equipped with the kinds of furniture and playthings proven to help kids calm themselves and process difficult, traumatic experiences. In time, the school hopes to include equipment like crash pads — large, soft, squishy mattress-like poufs that kids can fall on or crawl under — therapy balls, a kickboxing bag, heavy ropes, a mini trampoline, and other items.

“It’s been such a divinely led process for me,” Talken says. “There are always points in the journey where you have doubts, and then I remind myself, ‘Nope, just keep trying, keep following.’”

“It’s not about me, but it’s about who I’m serving,” she adds.

Editor’s note: If you’d like to know more about sensory rooms and their function, see this video at https://youtu.be/zULwQUQDMuM. The video, forwarded by St. Catherine’s, depicts many of the equipment and playthings that will populate the school’s sensory room.

Jean Talken paints over the room’s original bright pink-purple to a more calming light blue.

The storage room is cleared and painted ready to be furnished with equipment and playthings that help calm and soothe troubled children.

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