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'Life-saver' of an agency continues its work with children

Tracy Diina doesn't mince words. She says Child & Adolescent Treatment Services of Western New York saved her life.

When she was 16 and growing up in North Buffalo, Diina, now 42, began to defy her father and stepmother and take risks, including drinking and taking drugs.

"It was the punk-rock era, so I shaved my head, I did anything I could to annoy my parents, defy authority and get all the nuns and teachers at school angry," says Diina, who works as a consultant. "My parents were very worried for me, because I was showing very poor judgment, so they forced me into counseling."

Her parents got in touch with Child & Adolescent Treatment Services, a local nonprofit agency that addresses the mental health issues of children and young adults. At the CATS office on Main Street near Niagara Falls Boulevard, Diina made an immediate connection with her counselor, a young woman named Tina.

"I clicked with her right away, so that made it a lot easier," says Diina, who also had peer counseling and whose family participated in family counseling at the agency.

"It was more than a year of my life, and as it continued, I really started to gain a lot of self-confidence," says Diina. "In retrospect, I realize that I had very low self-esteem and I was very insecure, so I wanted the attention I got from acting out. The counseling helped me realize that I didn't need all that attention, that I was good enough."

Diina is a firm believer in the value of counseling, which she has returned to at several points in her life.

"I didn't realize it at the time, but I realize now how sad I was and how little I valued myself," Diina says. "By taking drugs and drinking, I had no regard for who I was or all the gifts I had, and I was really damaging myself."

Diina is among the thousands of children and young adults, ranging from age 3 to 21, who have been helped by the programs offered by the agency, which was founded in 1937. Among the clients are children with disruptive behaviors, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, depression and self-harming, or who have been victimized by sexual abusers or bullies. Many family members also participate in programs to help the child clients.

This year, the agency will continue to spread the word about its work at twice-monthly public meetings in the agency's Cheektowaga administrative offices and at outreach meetings in the community.

At a recent meeting at the agency's offices titled "If You Only Knew," staffers shared the stories of children and young adults who had been helped by the agency's varied programs.

"People often believe, incorrectly, that childhood is an idyllic period," said Bonnie L. Glazer, executive director of CATS. "Childhood for some children is very painful, and it really takes a lot for some children to stay alive so they can become happy, healthy, well-functioning adults."

Many parents of distressed children don't realize that "effective treatments exist for almost all conditions that affect children," so many children suffer unnecessarily, says Glazer.

The "If You Only Knew" sessions present an overview of the agency through the stories of four children who have been assisted by CATS programs. Henry, 15, suffers from depression and is bullied in school. Devon, 17, lives with his foster grandmother but needs help to prepare to live independently and avoid making bad choices. Tara, 4, has been sexually assaulted by her mother's boyfriend and is helped at the Lee Gross Anthone Child Advocacy Center, one of the CATS programs. A final segment includes a letter written by a woman whose daughter was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, who was "distraught, hopeless and despairing" until she was assisted by CATS workers.

These varied success stories each stress that youngsters in need must be given "the right help at the right time in the right place," Glazer says.

CATS has been offering the outreach sessions for about 15 months, bringing the agency's message of hope to school groups, community organizations and block clubs, says Karen Marsch, its director of marketing and development.

Even if the group that hosts "If You Only Knew" does not work directly with children, it's still effective, because "Everybody knows a child," says Marsch. And after every presentation, she says, at least one person approaches the CATS staff privately to say that the stories resonated with them. "They say they know children who have been in need or have struggled," says Marsch. "This is not a hidden problem."

While some of those people are looking for assistance, others "just want to say that they are touched by the presentation," says Marsch. "Sometimes they say, 'I went through this myself.' It brings all sorts of things out."

In addition to the administrative offices in Cheektowaga and the Lee Gross Anthone Child Advocacy Center on Franklin Street in Buffalo, the agency has offices in the University District, on the East and West Sides and in Hamburg. Each year it assists more than 3,000 children and young people, ranging in age from 3 to 21, and their families.

The agency offers psychiatric services, counseling and therapy for children and families, community-based learning and recreation during nonschool hours, assistance for foster children who are preparing to live independently, and more.

To attend one of the sessions at CATS administrative offices, 301 Cayuga Road, Suite 200, Cheektowaga, or to schedule one in the community, call Marsch at 819-3420, ext. 106.