Summer in Minnesota is short. “Summer Fridays”, when the office clears out at noon, are in full swing. Most of us are spending all the time we can soaking up the weather, time at the cabin, or in the garden, right?
Adam Estrem’s summer has been very different this year. As many of you know, Adam, our Director of Youth and Hospitality, is currently on sabbatical in an intensive, 400 hour Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program which is a requirement for his ordination.
I had the chance to catch-up with Adam recently to talk about his experiences in a pioneering chaplaincy opportunity at the Children’s Residential Treatment Center (CRTC), in Minneapolis. The CRTC, a Volunteers of America site, provides intensive residential treatment for severely emotionally disturbed children and adolescents who suffer primary psychiatric challenges. Adam is the center’s first CPE chaplain.
“We work with kids from all over the state. Many have been in and out of hospitals, out patients programs” explains Adam. “For some, this is a last resort. A last hope before institutionalization.” It’s been a “thrown off the cliff” kind of learning curve for Adam as “it’s hard to really prepare for something like this. I didn’t fully know what to expect. I’m the first chaplain so, with the support of the staff, I’ve been figuring things out as I go.”
Much of Adam’s work is about being present. Really present. Eye to eye with kids who are suffering from disorders that are hard, scary, and uncomfortable to discuss.
Adam’s a guy who rolls up his sleeves and that’s the attitude he’s bringing to this work. He felt called to stay behind with kids who are unable or unwilling to leave the facility for daily afternoon outings. His presence, which might at first appear easy – playing games, doing art projects, and talking – IS his ministry. It’s in these seemingly calm times that anything can happen.
“I’ve learned how consuming mental illness can be. Some of the actions that mental illness produces, in the simple moments like playing a game, are extreme. And at times, violent. Looking these kids in the eye, showing love to them in those circumstances isn’t easy. And, in a place like this, the need is never ending.”
On Friday nights, Adam developed and leads a spirituality group which, while rewarding, poses its own challenges. “As a chaplain for all the residents, I can’t focus on Christian values alone. While some kids identify as Christians, others don’t. I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how to center our talks on the common values in religions.” Finding the unifying threads has enabled Estrem to help the kids “realize that just because they are here, in a rough patch in their lives, doesn’t mean that they can’t be good to others. That other people aren’t in need.”
The message resonated strongly with the kids.
“They led a service project and made survival kits and blankets which they delivered to The Bridge for Youth“, a program providing services to homeless youth in Minnesota. While Adam worked with kids on the project, he’s quick to point out “they planned it all. They made the pitch to the staff, gave me shopping lists and made it all happen. It was amazing. All the kids, even those unable to leave the facility for those afternoon outings chose to participate.”
Adam’s just now grasping some of what he’s learned this summer.
“When I went in, I thought I would come out the other side being able to talk to everyone about a topic like suicide. How we could fix it, like I’d
have all these answers. But I’ve realized how complicated it is. I have way more questions than I did when I started. But I’m not afraid to ask them now or have the discussion.“
Adam’s had a lot of support through this journey. Weekly he gathers with other CPE participants in an inter-denominational group for an all-day opportunity to share challenges and support. The group also shared collective experiences including a trip to White Earth, and chaplaincy opportunities at hospitals and Stillwater prison.
While it’s been an atypical summer for Adam, it’s been one filled with amazing moments.
“A time that stands out was a day when I sat on the floor with a girl going through intake. She was so nervous. Crying, hyperventilating, scared, lost. At the same time this young man, a resident, was being discharged. He saw what was happening and came over. Took her hand, looked her in the eye and said ‘I was you 8 months ago. If I can do it, you can. Just keep going. It’s worth it.’ It was a moment of pure holiness. There have been a lot of those. ”
Adam finishes up his sabbatical soon and looks forward to being back with his church family.
“What I’m bringing back here is a much deeper understanding of mental illness and how easy it is for anyone to reach that dark place. Being immersed with these kids day after day, I’m so comfortable talking about uncomfortable things now.”
Adam will be bringing that first-hand experience back to our parish soon. Classes with his ordination cohort resume August 5 and he will be back at church August 14.
“I’m excited for another great program year. I’m so grateful that I was able to take this time but I’m ready to get back!”