Gilbert Castaneda was in third grade when his mom found him staring at the TV, peeling off the bottom of his lip with his teeth, completely spaced out. She says the schools he’d attended had kept telling her he had ADD or ADHD, insisting she put him on medication, and even though she was convinced they were wrong, she was tired of fighting. But this was what the medication did to her son.
Several years and schools later, no longer on medication, Castaneda transferred to the school at the Tennyson Center for Children. His mother, Marlene “Cookie” Mendoza, didn’t expect Tennyson to be any better than the other schools he’d attended. But about two weeks in, with no daily phone calls with complaints about Castaneda, she started to change her mind.
In May, Castaneda became the first high school graduate of Tennyson’s school. He cried when he received his diploma, and so did his mom and many of the staff members in attendance.
“When it came to Gilbert, struggling and fighting, I felt alone,” Mendoza says, “but Tennyson let me feel a little bit more trusting.”
The Tennyson Center for Children started as an orphanage in 1904 in Loveland. Today, located in West Highland, Tennyson runs a residential program for children, an accredited K–12 school, and community-based services for children or families that are referred by other schools or by the Department of Human Services. Some children live with foster families; many who live at Tennyson have had parental rights terminated and have no other place to go. In 2018, Tennyson served 1,079 children through all of its programs.
This month, thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor, all of the children Tennyson currently serves—plus the graduated Gilbert—will have the opportunity to spend a day at Elitch Gardens. The outing is completely paid for, but it’s set up as a matching gift: The donor is asking the greater Denver community to meet the value of $125,000 in gifts to support Tennyson’s services for children and families.
“The challenge for us and for the community was to match [the gift], so that these families have both opportunities—we know they need treatment for a long time; we also know that they need joy,” says Lauren Dartt, Tennyson’s director of marketing and communications.
Tennyson dubbed the event the Day of Play, hearkening to play therapy—a key part of the organization’s approach to stabilizing, healing, and reintegrating its students back into their schools. “Ideally, we don’t want kids to graduate from here,” Dartt says. Gilbert was an exception. “If someone needs the type of support that he did, then we’re happy that we can walk him through that journey.”
Tennyson’s school is set up to serve students with diverse backgrounds of trauma, abuse, and related behaviors. Classes average 10 to 12 students and have a student–adult ratio of about 3:1, thanks to the presence of two youth counselors in each classroom along with the teacher and, at times, a clinician. Staff prioritize listening to students and understanding where they’re coming from.
“We’ve had kids who won’t go in the classroom for months, and we just walk them around until they start feeling comfortable,” says Jessica Courtney, Tennyson’s director of residential programs. “These kids have every right to be super untrusting and so our job is to help alleviate as much of that as possible.”
Because of the trauma and life circumstances that many of Tennyson’s students have endured, they often don’t know how to play, a skill that helps develop the ability to think ahead and plan out steps, rather than just acting on impulses. Trauma throws them into survival mode, so it’s difficult to calm down and see beyond the present moment. “They can’t plan three steps forward….because they’re so in their crisis and they’re so hyper-vigilant about their safety,” Courtney says.
Through play therapy—which includes imagination play (Lava Monsters is a favorite), sports, and board games—Tennyson staff tries to address these issues. And during the summer, students get more opportunities to practice the skills they’re learning off-campus through field trips around Denver at least once a week.
The Day of Play at Elitch Gardens is an exciting spin on those excursions. “I’ve worked at Tennyson for eight years and I’ve never taken a group of kids to Elitch’s,” Courtney says, “so this is a big deal.”
Tennyson children and families will have access to the park all day (organization officials asked that 5280 not publish the date in the interest of safety for their students) and a private pavilion is reserved for them to share a meal together.
“This is about the kids getting to be kids,” Courtney says. “[Elitch Gardens is] a playground. It’s a giant playground for kids.”
Get involved: If you want to match the donor’s gift and support Tennyson’s work, check out the GoFundMe. Gifts of all sizes are welcome and appreciated.