Former Foster Child Provides Family-Focused Mental Health Services to the Underserved

Satira Streeter, founder and executive director, Ascensions Community Services, Inc., Washington, D.C., is being honored for her efforts to deliver culturally relevant, family-focused mental health services to children and families living in the historically impoverished area of Anacostia and surrounding communities.

    • October 8, 2009

As a foster child, Satira Streeter thought that the therapists she was seeing were doing something wrong. Streeter, who is African-American, felt that she had to teach the therapists about her experiences and background. That’s when she decided that she would be a psychologist when she grew up. But she was determined to be a different kind of psychologist: One who understands the cultures of her patients and includes patient families in therapy sessions.

When she became a clinical psychologist, Streeter made that first big change by including the entire family in the process. “You can’t fix a child without treating the problems around them,” she says.

Ascensions Community Services, which Streeter founded and directs, works to “heal everyone at the same time.” Ascensions is the only free, comprehensive community mental wellness center that provides holistic psychological interventions to disadvantaged children and their families living in Washington, D.C. At Ascensions, no family is ever turned away because of the inability to pay, and clients are typically seen within 24 hours of referral. About 95 percent of Ascensions clients are African American, about 45 percent have no insurance or the ability to pay for psychological treatment, and 50 percent are children.

“My goal is to really help families,” Streeter says. “The reason I called the organization ‘Ascensions’ is because I want people—regardless of the hardships they’ve gone through—to make something better of their life, to ascend over difficulties to a higher place.”

Streeter is deeply dedicated to the people of Anacostia, even though she is a native of Ohio. She was first drawn to the community when she was working with inmates at a prison in Virginia when Washington, D.C., closed its Lorton prison and sent their inmates to her facility. Streeter led a therapy session that explored the impact of drugs on the lives of the men. “They thought dealing drugs would help their families, but now everything was destroyed,” she says. “I tried to help them to look at the big picture—what drugs do to an entire community, how destructive they are. The men said they had never thought of it that way before, and told me I was needed in D.C.”

A major challenge for Streeter is addressing the stigma associated with mental health in the African-American community. “The first message many African Americans receive is ‘What happens in this house stays in this house,’” she says. “To talk about it is a complete no-no. Even in the religious community, they tell people that it’s not depression, it’s the devil. So people shy away from therapy when they really need it.”

In addition to Ascensions, Streeter runs what she calls an “atypical Girl Scout group,” where the girls all face tough day-to-day challenges. “Children today are facing many of the same problems as adults,” she says. “Sometimes I work with a 27-year-old mom and an 11-year-old daughter who are facing the same issues. The cycle of teen pregnancy and of poverty can and must be broken.”

In communities such as Anacostia, Streeter says that it is important for all adults to be engaged in the lives of the youth in their communities. “When I walk down the street and hear a child bully another child, I step in and say something. They are surprised that an adult cares. But I think they appreciate it. It makes a difference.”

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