Donation boosts therapy through play to help struggling Salem families

Ben Fennimore’s therapy sessions sometimes start with toys.

As the family mental health program director for Family Building Blocks, Fennimore works with parents — but also has sessions with children in a play therapy room, where kids lead the session by choosing what to play with.

“Whatever’s going on in their brain, their mind, their body will come out in the play naturally,” he said.

A stressed child might start a session by knocking all the toys on the floor, while one feeling intense anxiety might obsessively organize items on shelves, he said.

Fennimore and his team of two other therapists will soon be getting better training and coaching in play therapy, part of a $50,000 donation from Country Financial in Salem to support the program.

The gift came through help from board member Gina Defa White, agency manager for the local Country Financial office.

Since just before the pandemic, Family Building Blocks has provided family and individual therapy to the parents and kids they work with.

The expansion adds to their other programs for families with kids up to age 5, which include relief nurseries, home visits, parenting classes and other support. 

“These families are generally facing overwhelming life circumstances where it would make them tough to be all they can be for their children,” said Patrice Altenhofen, the organization’s executive director.

That might mean unemployment, addiction, isolation or a history of experiencing abuse. Family Building Blocks’ goal is to intervene and help before families are in a position where a child might be neglected.

Fennimore said in years past, Family Building Blocks case workers have often suggested therapy for families or referred them to other organizations. But those referrals rarely led to therapy, for a variety of reasons, including the extra work of setting something up with a new organization or a reluctance to trust an outside provider. One case worker said in over five years, she’d had maybe one family follow up making a mental health appointment, Fennimore said.

Fennimore suggested expanding into a therapy program after years working for the nonprofit. The organization raised some private money to begin sessions, and started offering telehealth appointments in April 2020, just after everything shut down for Covid and many families faced additional economic and social stress.

With therapy provided directly by Family Building Blocks, families that already trust the nonprofit have an easier time getting help. The therapists bill family insurance if they have it, but so far no family has paid out of pocket for any therapy.

“Sometimes the focus is: how do you make it week to week, how do you not feel overwhelmed in an overwhelming situation and still be able to parent, do housework, do something fun once in a while?” Fennimore said.

Fennimore and his team see about 100 clients. When a family enrolls in therapy, they do an initial assessment and determine a treatment plan. Some families just want a session or two, while others might be seen more regularly. Anyone in the family can participate, from grandparents to infants.

“Really it’s kind of nice having a mix of ages,” he said. “I like the variety.”

With the recent grant, Fennimore and the organization’s other therapists will pursue training in play therapy and other methods to help them better treat families.

They offer sessions in English and Spanish, and are expanding to hire more bilingual therapists.

“We just want to be able to continue increasing our knowledge and our specialties,” he said.

The therapists also offer a monthly group session for Family Building Blocks employees who work directly with families, giving them a place to share moments that were especially challenging and talk about taking care of themselves while doing difficult work.

“It’s really easy through burnout to maybe lose hope if you’re doing this work in isolation. To be able to come together as a group with a professional to talk about some of those challenges is really important,” Altenhofen said. “In my mind it really ensures the quality of services to children and families stays very high.”

As the therapy program expands, Altenhofen said she hopes to be able to add therapists in some of the nonprofit’s offices stationed around Marion and Polk counties, rather than just in Salem.

“It deepens the quality of service we’re able to offer the families,” she said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.