The Rainbow Project and COVID-19
Healing during a Pandemic
Sharyl Kato is the founder and CEO of The Rainbow Project, which
provides restorative healing counseling to children and families
who have experienced any form of abuse.
By Jonathan Gramling

Until the middle of March, The Rainbow Project was staying busy
providing counseling and therapy to approximately 1,000 children who
had been victims of some form of abuse or trauma. Established in
1979, Rainbow has an experienced, capable and compassionate staff
who were working with the children — and often times members of
their families and extended families — in person at their offices on E.
Washington Avenue. For the most part, they provided in-person
services that could often times end with a reassuring hug.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Rainbow temporarily came
grinding to a halt as it adjusted to a new normal and changed the way
they do business before they could once again provide their essential
services within a virtual world.
“You would think it is hard to learn new ways, Sharyl Kato, Rainbow’s director, said about the staff. “But I think because there is such
mastery at what they do, they are really agile in what they do to be able to in a very quick period of time — at the most a month — adapt. I
remember in mid-March when we closed, we were up and running in April. We developed a 16-page Tele-Health policy before we could
really use it. To me, you can have the very best curricula and the very best approaches theoretically, but it is really the vehicle, the
therapist, to make sure that it works. And so, those relations that are so critical to how you do that via Tele-Health.”

In a sign of the times, one of Kato’s six-year-old clients hugged the monitor after her session. While the transition was easiest with their
existing clients, it’s harder to form those close, personal connections when you never meet them in person.

Kato emphasized that all of us can be exposed to mental health stressors due to our isolation. But it can be especially intense for people
who have experienced trauma and abuse.

“It’s going to do a lot of triggering,” Kato said. “And one of the clients whom I work with who was very perceptive said, ‘I feel like I am in
this fight-flight because it is hard to imagine this is going to get better.’ And all of these other things are happening that trigger her. And
yeah, it’s increasing domestic violence. It’s increasing child abuse dynamics. And it really increases risks. And so it requires again a
resiliency and agility in our clients. That’s what we are really doing is helping them.”

While the prolonged stay-at-home directives can take a toll on relationships as people in a family must deal with each other 24/7 in close
proximity to each other, it can also have its advantages.

“There are times when things have happened in the child’s early life that a parent couldn’t help and they may have, for some reason, not
been emotionally available, this is actually an awesome time to stop the world and give them the opportunity to do that, to take the most
advantage of that,” Kato said. “It depends on where people are in their ability. You can’t substitute that time. I have a dad and a son who
never had that and they are now having that ability to some real quality time together, watching things on YouTube or Tai Chi and doing it

It has had some other positive impacts as well while the bulk of the therapy is provided through Tele-Health.

“We send therapeutic care kits with some of those activities in there specifically for them so that it helps to facilitate those things a little
bit more easily and with more fun,” Kato said about the therapy. “It is challenging to be entertaining. But on the other hand, just like on the
phone or on Zoom, sometimes people are allowing themselves to be more vulnerable and more open. It might be because they are
used to the phone and you don’t have to make eye contact. I find that I am the same way. I’m more disclosing. I’m more no-nonsense
about it. You remain professional, but you also are remaining more person-to-person in some ways. We’re find out all of those cool
things. And sometimes our attendance has actually been better, which speaks to access because they don’t have to drive all the way
around town or pick up their kids at school or day care and all of this and worry about getting off of work.”

One of the biggest concerns that Kato had was the lack of technology that some of the households may experience or people like
grandparents who don’t use the internet as a central part of their day. Kato has been pleasantly surprised.

“With all of the technology, they were the first ones to go Tele-Health,” Kato said about the grandparents. “They didn’t skip a beat. We are
so proud of them that they were able to do the internet. It’s very similar to our Spanish-speaking mom’s group that they are doing the
Tele-Health and they are the group that we thought would be the hardest and they became the easiest. I think it happened because there
is the motivation. These are long-standing groups with long relationships with one another and their facilitator. To me that is just a sign
of how much their need is being met, not just by Rainbow, but also by each other. And those connections are all the more needed during
this time.”

Nothing beats person-to-person contact, but the Rainbow staff has been inventive in simulating that experience and getting people to
just live in the moment.

“We do special play with parents,” Kato said. “They think we are kind of goofy, but we say they are like a movie camera video and they just
say, ‘I see Michaela playing in the sand and she is filling the dump truck. Now she is taking the dump truck and emptying it.’ There’s no
values attributed to it like good job. It’s strictly describing the child in space and time and the moment. And what it does is validate and
affirm that they exist. One time I was doing that with a child and she was only three-years-old. And I was writing notes and she said,
‘Sharyl, don’t stop. Keep doing it.’ So she started reflecting on herself. Knowledge is power and that’s why I see resiliency in some of our
clients. It’s so cool. You can tell. They are really trying and hanging in there.”

Kato is concerned about everyone during this stay-at-home moment. Since human beings are, by nature, social animals, people may fill
the vacuum in their lives caused by the isolation with some unhealthy things.

“I don’t think that you can ignore the pain or minimize it,” Kato said about the isolation. “I think the only thing I can say is that with internal
pain emotionally is that just like any other pains that we have, whether it is craving for a cigarette is that it passes. Those moments pass
and there are some proactive things they can do. But there is a high risk for numbing yourself. And that’s where substance abuse and
smoking and drinking are going to be tempting. Instead it’s an opportunity to really be healthy because we have, unfortunately, some
high risks for a lot of things including eating disorders.”

One of the most important things people can do is have hope and stay positive and build structures around you that reinforce those

“I think there is always this feeling that it’s not going to get better and how hard it is to either project or even over-idealize what might be
happening,” Kato emphasized. “And that’s not always realistic. But people just need to have that hope and that belief that it is going to get
better and to think more about planning in those stages, not high and mighty, but you are proactive once you start planning. Whether it’s
making sure there are fun times, it’s those little things that you don’t think are going to matter like mindfulness and meditation. It’s not
just this strange Eastern kind of ritual. It really is just being present with yourself even 12 minutes a day. Graduate students are scoring
higher on tests and reducing their stress and it’s only 12 minutes per day. We have a whole packet of things that we give people
because they don’t think that is going to work. But it’s really about being able to cope. I think reaching out is important. Some agencies
have respite. And if it is particularly a high risk situation, there is always an out. There is always a solution.”

In spite of COVID-19 and the isolation it has caused, Sharyl Kato and The Rainbow Project staff continue to heal people in a virtual
universe where there is still hope and compassion.