Sporting Optimism

Class of ’13 Alum Julia Katchen Reaches Adolescents by Keeping Them Active

January 15, 2014

As GSSW Class of ’13 graduate Julia Katchen can tell you, adolescence is a crucial time for social-work intervention. Even the most confident teenagers cope with angst and anxiety, while others become nearly debilitated by the challenges of coming into their own. That’s why Katchen, like many aspiring social workers, has set her focus on youth. It’s a path she began paving during her own high school years.

“I knew this is what I wanted to do by the time I was 14,” the New Yorker by way of L.A. explains. “I was always involved in youth organizations, and I went to camp my whole life, and I really saw the impact the people who worked with me had on my life, and how you spend more time with those people than you do your own parents and how you can shape a child’s mind. I just thought, “'How amazing would it be if you could do that your entire life.' And it’s not only your own children, but everybody’s who you can really help grow to be decent, kind human beings.”

Katchen, who earned her B.A. in Psychology from Lander College for Women, has already served her community via developing curriculum at Manhattan’s Congregation Shearith Israel, coordinating athletics programs at Malibu, California’s Camp Moshava and planning events at L.A.’s Aish Tamid center for at-risk boys. She also recently headed up the elementary school division of Zionist youth movement Bnei Akvia. That hands-on experience has exposed Katchen to a wide range of students with myriad behavioral issues, but there has been one consistent obstacle.

“As a teen, you’re pretty stubborn,” she says. “And you’re always right, and it makes it very challenging to have those breakthroughs where maybe doing the drugs and the partying isn’t the most important thing in life at this point. Once they see there is a future ahead of them, that’s when you have the most beneficial work and positive outcome, when they see their own potential.”

Athletics in particular has been instrumental for Katchen in reaching young people seeking positive direction. The bottom line with a lot of kids is simply keeping them busy and engaged. Or, as Katchen puts it, “I think any type of activity-based program for teens is extremely important because it’s an outlet for them where they get out aggression and energy. I know I have participated in volleyball and basketball, and I felt like I was part of something bigger than myself, which I think a lot of these kids don’t have. If your family is having issues and you’re feeling alone in the world and you’re having issues with friends, when you join a team it, it can really change your whole outlook.”

Katchen sees an immediate need for this kind of organized outreach in her own community. Going forward, she hopes to implement gender-balanced social work for at-risk Jewish youth and their families. “Within the Jewish Frum communities, there aren’t a lot of outlets for girls I find, and I think that’s what we’re missing,” she elaborates. “Ultimately, for me, I would want to create a program where we can build self-esteem through sports education and counseling and after-school programming, and incorporate them into each and every school within the community. There needs to be an umbrella organization or somebody who can instill love of Judaism and love of oneself with teens and girls especially. You see a lot of people going on their own path that’s not necessarily the right path, and if we create an environment where it’s normal to see a therapist and it’s cool to be part of something bigger than yourself, we can have a huge impact not only in the frum communities, but in all communities at large.”