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Health News Florida
In this statewide project, journalists explore the high costs of the pandemic for children and young adults. The project is supported in part by the Hammer Family Charitable Foundation and the Education Writers Association.

Grad Embraces Therapy, Coping Strategies To Get Through Tough Senior Year

Matthew Williamson.jpg
Wilkine Brutus
/
WLRN
Matthew Williamson at The Lord's Place Family Campus in West Palm Beach.

With the help of a West Palm Beach nonprofit, this teen made it through the pandemic and his high school career.

The road to high school graduation this year has been filled with extreme challenges and unexpected silver linings.

For a recent graduate in Palm Beach County, a series of circumstances went beyond pandemic-related stress. He had already spent several years finding ways to cope through unforeseen obstacles.

CLASS OF COVID-19: Read more of our ongoing series

Matthew Williamson says he was in middle school when his mom, Samantha Williamson, fell ill, lost her job and their home. And he said it was a lesson in perseverance.

“My mom and I [have] always been like a tag team together because without my mom — I'm a big mama's boy. I can admit that,” said Williamson. “So I know my mom was going to make it through no matter what.”

Williamson says when his parents divorced, his sister took it hard. That led to several family issues that involved the Florida Department of Children and Families. Shortly after his mother lost her home, Williamson moved to New York to live with his father for a year until his mother and older sister found housing. The older sister eventually moved out and Williamson still goes back up for summer vacation.

He and his mother have been living at The Lord's Place Family Campus in West Palm Beach for about five years now. The nonprofit has two separate housing programs to help struggling, homeless families become independent.

The 19-year-old says since his mother has a lot of different medical issues, she was especially vulnerable to COVID-19. So even though he could have gone to school in person, he decided to do his classes remotely.

“Doing it from home is really difficult because when you’re at home you have more distractions,” said Williamson. “Plus, when you’re at home, you’re not used to waking up in the morning for school. That’s a reason you’d be late to class. It’s very stressful.”

During school, he’d also been stressed out by the thought of losing his mom and says he went through bouts of depression. And, right now, Williamson's mother is raising his sister’s 18-month-old daughter and 6-month-old son. That’s another layer of stress — another unforeseen obstacle.

There are recurring moments that helped him relieve that depression: constantly bonding with his niece and nephew, playing with pets Chi Chi and Namekian — a dwarf rabbit and guinea pig, respectively, named after "Dragon Ball Z" characters — and using meditation as a way to stimulate relaxation and problem-solving skills.

“In my bedroom, I just turn on some peaceful music and just sit on the floor and close my eyes and think how I can benefit from it,” Williamson said. “Let’s say I have a problem, I always think of a different way of how to do it while I’m meditating.”

Williamson learned how to meditate through his weekly therapy sessions. His high school worked with the Lord’s Place to get him a therapist. And as part of the Lord’s Place youth services program, Williamson says he also learned about other stress-relieving activities like golf and equestrian therapy.

And he said “with COVID, everything was much stressful,” and he didn’t feel he could “catch a break with school,” especially during a time when he couldn’t hang out with friends. It sparked a sense of paranoia amid unrelenting uncertainty.

Interacting with the horses during an equestrian therapy trip helped him take a break from those thoughts. He said the experience was “one of the best feelings there was in life.”

“It was complete happiness, you’re feeling calm, not freaking out, like, ‘Oh my god, am I gonna get sick,’ It was one of best things ever," Williamson said.

Matthew Williamson graduation.jpg
Emily Sardinha
Graduate Matthew Williamson stands with his father, mother, niece, nephew, maternal grandmother and maternal great-uncle.

And part of that stress relief also involves playing basketball with his friends.

“Basketball’s almost like school. You’re always going to have your ups and downs. Even like basketball, you don't make a shot. Ok. In school, it's like a test. You don't pass the test. OK, guess what? It's almost like you missed the hoop in basketball,” said Williamson. “It’s also like seeing [what] you’re good at and what things you aren’t good at. So that’s my way of thinking about life as well, relating to basketball.”

Williamson says like any team sport, everyone has a position to play in his life. This support group is “one big team.”

“Everything they do, it always impacts somebody. My dad, he always impacts my life. My mom impacts my life. They’re part of my team. The Lord's Place impacts my life, so that's another part of my team,” said Williamson. “And we all work together.”

Fred Weitz has been the youth education coordinator at The Lord’s Place for the past three years. He’s been an educator for 25 years.

“We do as much cheerleading for the kids as possible because they need that to succeed in school,” Weitz said.

Weitz often works alongside Emily Sardinha, the youth education advocate at The Lord's Place, to establish and sustain rapport with the students. Educators at Lord’s Place say young people often yearn for tutoring help, career planning, and an all-around emotional support system.

At Lord’s Place, up to 50 children, from kindergarten through 12th grade, get off their school bus and meet the youth services team at the youth center at various times.

“Kids have to feel a certain comfort level and until they kind of let their wall down a little bit," said Weitz. “Matthew has always been very outgoing and very warm. And if you need help with anything [he'll say] 'Can I offer to help you?' And he's always been like that.”

Four high school students who live in those housing units graduated in 2020 and attended college. This year, Weitz says, three more high school students graduated.

Williamson recently graduated from Inlet Grove High School in Riviera Beach. He’s going to Palm Beach State College and he wants to major in marine service technology.

He says he learned about boating from his father.

“When I was younger, on the weekends, he’d take us on the boat. And ever since then, I loved boats because I just like being on the water, fixing them,” said Williamson. “It reminds me of when I was little and I enjoyed doing that so I’d rather do something I enjoy instead of doing something I don’t like.”

The Lord's Place will help him get a laptop and other supplies for college. He says going through personal challenges and developing coping mechanisms has prepared him for his eventual goal of life as an entrepreneur.

“I always wanted to open up my own workshop one day,” Williamson said. “So maybe one day my dream will come true.”

Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM.