Participants in a CHRIS 180 summer camp.

By Clare S. Richie

CHRIS 180, formerly known as Chris Kids, recently updated its name to more accurately identify the people they serve and how they serve them.

The 36-year-old nonprofit helps anyone who has experienced trauma change the direction of their lives to become more self-sufficient. According to experts, untreated trauma can result in physical illness, depression, poor school and work performance, and other issues. CHRIS 180 responds with mental health counseling, training, and by providing safe housing and real-world skill building.

“The old name was a barrier to adults who may otherwise access our mental health services and our young adults and teens didn’t like to be referred to as kids,” CHRIS 180 President & CEO Kathy Colbenson shared.

The new name keeps the CHRIS acronym – Creativity, Honor, Respect, Integrity, and Safety – but shifts the focus to its transformative services.

“180 is a turnaround – it’s a change in the direction in your life,” Colbenson said. “Everyone who comes to us wants to make a change. We are a mental health organization at our heart. The old name focused on the who. It was time to talk about the what and how.”
The name change was a pro bono effort by Bright Blue Consulting and former Board Chair Sheila Weidman of Georgia Pacific. Both conducted market research by interviewing former and current clients, staff, supporters and people unfamiliar with the nonprofit.

At its founding in 1981, the nonprofit focused on children with mental health and behavior problems in the state foster care system, providing the first specialized group homes. Today the nonprofit has grown into so much more.

Two programs make up 80 percent of its services. CHRIS Counseling Center’s mental health counseling is available to the public through a sliding fee scale and insurance or to referred clients. Keeping Families Together is a wraparound service program that helps families so they can become stronger and stay together.

The nonprofit also provides a supportive housing program for single and parenting youth, ages 17-24, who are homeless or have aged out of the foster care system.

CHRIS 180 has always served Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) youth, but in 2000 established the first program in the southeast to target a disproportionate percentage of LGBTQ homeless youth. Today this population is integrated into all service programs.

To reduce barriers to treatment, CHRIS 180 provides school based mental health services in 14 schools in Atlanta Public Schools and DeKalb County. “Parents can attend a school meeting and schedule therapy during the same visit,” Colbenson said.

To extend its reach even further, CHRIS 180 trains nonprofits, state workers and human service professionals on Trauma Informed Care. “We understand that someone exhibiting difficult behavior is not necessarily being ‘bad’. We all have triggers. We teach staff to be curious, to be compassionate. Then we follow that with proven therapeutic evidence based researched practices that work,” Colbenson explained.

CHRIS 180’s approach is to withhold judgment and listen to what each person needs.

“You are the best informant on your life and personal goals,” Colbenson said. “We listen to each individual’s dreams and challenges to help them make a realistic plan. We may get a referral from DFCS but ask: what do you want our help with?”

Art in the CHRIS 180 therapy room.

Like when a school referred a family because of their children’s poor hygiene. Turned out the family didn’t have a washer, dryer or hot water heater. CHRIS 180 connected the family to donated appliances before moving on to other issues.

“What do you need help with? That’s a lot different than saying you’re sending your kids to school dirty. The ‘R’ (in CHRIS) is, after all, respect,” Colbenson shared.

This approach works. Two years after leaving the supportive housing program, 97 percent of former clients are safely housed and 90 percent are working and/or in school.

CHRIS 180 donors help raise $2.5 million each year, $1.7 million of which directly helps foster care and homeless youth succeed.

“When you make an investment in a young person’s life or help a family develop strengths they need to function well – it pays off,” Colbenson stressed.

For example, a young mother who grew up as third generation foster care is now working and going to college while raising her two children.

“It can be done. No child should be written off. People can heal. With treatment, trauma is the most recoverable of all mental health issues,” Colbenson explained.

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Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.

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