Charit(able) 8

Harmony Family Center Helps Children Live Their Best Lives

“I found out two weeks before I left for China that the University of Tennessee grant I had been working under wouldn’t be re-funded,” Pam Wolf says, looking back. “So, I would be a single parent and unemployed.”

The founder and CEO of Harmony Family Center talked recently about events that led her to start a nonprofit. The nonprofit has changed over the years. So has Anna, who is now a senior in college and is getting a degree in international studies. But Pam remembers it like it was yesterday.

She was already a licensed clinical social worker with a master’s degree from the University of Tennessee when she adopted Anna in 1995.

“She was 6 months old,” Pam says. “My daughter was the fourth little girl to come to East Tennessee from China. China had started opening up in the early ‘90s for adoption. Everywhere I went, people were so interested in adopting, and I was handing out other people’s business cards.”

One day she thought of creating a nonprofit and with a laugh recalls thinking, “How hard could it be?”

She founded Harmony in 1996 to help other parents through the adoption process. For the first few years, she had only one employee. Now she has 54 full-time employees and another 100 part-time contract employees across the state.

“I wanted to help people understand the realities of adoption, cultural differences, attachment and bonding,” she says. “Then we trained professionals in dealing with women with unplanned pregnancies. Our next grant was with the Department of Children’s Services, and her focus is helping traumatized kids, usually between the ages of 5 to 18.  Most of those we serve have been adopted through foster care.

“These are tough kids,” she says.

Last year Harmony helped 2,600 kids in counseling and support groups. The nonprofit also trained adoptive parents.

“Over the years, we’ve evolved to understand the impact of trauma on the brain,” Pam says. “That’s interesting. It impacts the brain and subsequent behavior more than we ever thought it did. How the trauma changes the brains development depends on the type of trauma, the age and varies from child to child. My entire career we’ve tried to do cognitive therapy with teens who have very little cognitive function.

“We believe the healing for kids with trauma comes in small doses and frequently,” she says. “Doing counseling for an hour once a week with kids doesn’t cut. The parents are essential to it. They need to understand how the brain has been impacted by trauma and how those deficits affect behavior.”

Harmony Family Center has expanded in other ways, including the purchase of the old Camp Montvale near Maryville.

“We’ve restored it and are doing specialized camps for kids with trauma histories,” she says. “We work with families dealing with domestic violence and mental health issues and kids aging out of foster care.”

Harmony also offers a grandparent camp and equine therapy and has just placed its first therapy dog, Hope, with a family.

Hope has lived with Jonathan and Allison Douglas for about two months now. Allison works for Harmony as the education and training coordinator, and she and her husband have adopted four children.

Hope is there for their 11 1/2-year-old son who has several diagnoses due to trauma and prenatal factors.

“He has a lot of anxiety and trouble staying regulated—emotionally bouncing back from disappointments and upsets,” Allison says. “When he gets really upset, the dog will come over and give him licks and help him calm down. If he’s really anxious, the dog will sit down, and he can pet her. He’s very shy, so when we go out the dog will help him make friends with other kids because everybody loves dogs. Dogs are incredibly calming for a child. Kids from trauma can go from 0 to 60 very quickly. Emotionally, they’re all over the map. The dog will help them come back to center quickly. I think Hope has really helped our family by allowing our son to participate in things he couldn’t do before.”

Pam says somebody asked her one time, “What do you want people to take away from this?”

“If there’s something you feel strongly about,” she says, “you can go out and do it, whether it’s starting a nonprofit or working with a program. Every single person can have a positive impact on our community. That’s all this has been about.”

For more information on Harmony Family Center, visit HarmonyFamilyCenter.org.