SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. --
Staff Sgt. Johnathan Leuellen approaches the doors to a local residential facility for children with behavioral challenges brought about due to traumas such as abuse or neglect.
As he approaches, a 10-year-old notices him from inside and starts knocking on the window, waving enthusiastically.
“Oh, some of them get excited when they see the uniform,” he said, waving back.
Almost a year before, Leuellen, a project supervisor with the 375th Contracting Squadron, was at a 5/6 council meeting when he heard about Caritas Family Solutions and its mission to help these children.
Rico Dunn, lead residential supervisor at Caritas, explained its mission is to provide coping skills and tools that help children deal with trauma they’ve been exposed to. Part of its therapeutic approach involves creating a safe, comforting environment for the children.
However, the center’s recreation room had been looking rundown with unfinished, concrete floors and holes in its drywall, so the 5/6 council asked if they could help.
Leuellen said his decision to take lead on the project was a “no-brainer.”
“I wanted the community around Scott to know our job [in the military] is [also] to protect kids and people who can't protect themselves. That's one of the reasons why I joined.”
The planning started in May 2017 when he set out to acquire funding for the renovations. He worked with experts to make sure the room was as beneficial as possible to the children’s treatment.
“We had child psychologists approve the colors,” he said, gesturing toward the bright blue walls covered in clouds and trees. “We had engineers look at the floor and talk about, ‘Hey, is this floor going to hold up?’”
Dunn said that when Caritas started focusing on the therapeutic approach, they looked at the environment first.
“If kids grow up in an environment with holes and bugs and mice, they think that’s the norm,” said Dunn. “We wanted to change that outlook.”
The remodel took about two and a half months to complete. About 43 people had a hand in the renovations, including Leuellen and a few other Airmen from the 5/6.
“There were several of us who worked nights after work until 9, 10:30 p.m. and 16-hour days on Saturdays and Sundays,” said Leuellen, who put in over 850 hours into the project.
The hard work culminated in a grand opening on July 31, 2017. The mayor of Belleville, Mark Eckert, visited the grand opening and named July 31 Annual Caritas Day.
“My favorite moment working here would have to be when they opened this up,” said Dunn, standing in the middle of the recreation room. “The moment that we brought [the kids] over, they were very excited.”
Leuellen said he was in the room when the kids saw it for the first time.
“It was a lot of anticipation,” said Leuellen. “You could hear them outside [the room] like ‘We’re finally going to see what it looks like!’ And as soon as they were running in they’re all screaming about who gets to play which game first.”
For Leuellen, that moment also became the start of a mentorship program between the children and service members at Scott.
“It kind of hit home because we had had a limited amount of interaction with the kids at that time,” he said. “So you got to see the age groups and how small some of these kids are and, when you think about why they’re here, it really puts things into perspective.”
The mentoring program involves spending time with the children at the center, playing games with them in order to build the healthy relationships that promote treatment.
Because kids who are abused have had so much taken from them, normal avenues for behavior change are not as effective, Dunn said. Instead, building safe relationships is the most effective agent for behavior change.
Leuellen said at first some of the children were hesitant about the service members in uniform.
“Everything they’ve gone through, an authority figure [makes them] kind of concerned,” he said. “When they realized we were just there to hand out and play video games and relax, their attitudes started to warm up.”
Dunn said that they’re now trying to recruit more service members to be a part of the program.
“Going forward, I really think [the mentorship program] is going to be an amazing thing for our kids because our kids, the moment they see you guys walk in, they’re lighting up,” said Dunn.