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Washtenaw United: 'Telling It' program creates safe space to help youngsters in Washtenaw County meet emotional needs

University of Michigan College of Literature, Science and the Arts


Deb Gordon-Gurfinkel

Deborah Gordon-Gurfinkel, founder and program director of Telling It.
Scott C. Soderberg
Michigan Photography
Deborah Gordon-Gurfinkel, founder and program director of Telling It.

Deb Gordon-Gurfinkel is the founder and director of Telling It and a lecturer at the University of Michigan’s Residential College where she teaches a community engagement course.

A native of Great Britain who has lived in the States since 1986, Deb earned her Bachelor’s degree in Education from the Central School of Speech and Drama where she was trained to use the expressive arts as learning tools across curricula. She worked as a teacher for two years in inner-London schools before moving to San Francisco.

Once in the States, Deb focused her skills on the most vulnerable members of the community, co-founding a program called the Transit Theatre Project that used the arts as an intervention in support of the social emotional development of children staying with their families in sheltered accommodation.

Later, having moved to the mid-west, Deb saw an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show, which motivated her to start Telling It in 2002. Telling It has been operating in Washtenaw County since then, serving youth using a blend of the expressive arts and social work best practices in uncensored and judgement free spaces.

Currently, Telling It is meeting with youth at Ypsilanti Community Middle School, SOS Community Services and at the Washtenaw County Children’s Services Juvenile Detention Center.

Kelly Kundrat

Kelly Kundrat, lead social worker for the Telling It program.
University of Michigan College of Literature, Science and the Arts
Kelly Kundrat, lead social worker for the Telling It program.

Kelly Kundrat (she/her/hers) is the Lead Social Worker of Telling It. Kelly is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LMSW) in the State of Michigan. She attended the University of Michigan for her Master of Social Work and American University for her Master of Arts in Public Anthropology.

Kelly publicly defended her MA thesis with distinction on the role of racial and cultural identity struggles within the violence in Sudan and South Sudan as expressed by members of the DC Sudanese diaspora.

Given her passion for social advocacy and elevating the voices of individuals directly affected by crises, Kelly traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia twice to work as an organizer and reporter for the civil society forums on Sudan and South Sudan.

During her work for non-profits in DC, she produced educational materials and pieces on torture, the effects of solitary confinement in the age of mass incarceration, and alternatives to immigrant detention. She also organized public vigils, rallies, and congressional meetings and briefings.

Kelly is passionate about social justice through critical consciousness-raising, education, and advocacy. After completing her MSW at Michigan, Kelly worked in the child welfare system and as an International Adoptions Specialist.

She strives to check her own biases and dismantle oppressive beliefs within herself to promote equity.

Kelly has worked with the Telling It team as a Social Worker since March 2018, and started her role as the Lead Social Worker in July 2022.


Telling It


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And today, we're going to look at equipping young people in our community with essential emotional and personal skills through expressive arts and social work practices. That is the mission of a program called Telling It. I'm David Fair, and welcome to our weekly exploration of equity and opportunity. We call it Washtenaw United. The Telling It program creates opportunity for young people to connect with one another and in creative and professionally supported ways. I have two members of the Telling It team with me today. Deb Gordon-Gurfinkel is program director, and I thank you so much for stopping by.

Deb Gordon-Gurfinkel: Thank you so much for inviting us, David. It's a treat to be here.

David Fair: And Kelly Kundrat is lead social worker, and I'm glad you could make it as well.

Kelly Kundrat: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having us.

David Fair: So, Deb, I want to gain a better understanding of exactly what Telling It does. What is your brief elevator pitch about the program?

Deb Gordon-Gurfinkel: So, Telling It evolved from a literacy program for children who were experiencing homelessness and grew into a program that was directly serving them in their mental health and social/emotional needs because the way they were responding to the program, this is like 22 years ago, was as a mental health opportunity, so we became a lot more intentional, brought in Kelly and other social work practitioners. So, the program uses a blend of multiple methods to support young people: using creative expression, using games, using uncensored, judgment-free, empowered energy in the sessions. And everything we do is super-intentional around supporting their mental health in often nontraditional methods. We are often cited as a program that uses familiar techniques but uses them together in a way that is unusual.

David Fair: So, Kelly, as a social worker, how do you take that kind of almost avant-garde manner of dealing with those you're working with?

Kelly Kundrat: So, we offer a space that is uncensored, it's judgment free, and participation is never mandated. So, there's no obligation to participate in any of the activities that we have going on. Youth can sit towards the side and opt out any time they want. And what that does is create a space for a check-in, particularly with myself as the social worker or one of our other staff members that the youth may feel comfortable and safe with. And we just have a chat as needed. And because of having an uncensored and judgment-free space and not having these large reactions to things that youth share, we call them not having "pearl-clutching reactions" with things that the youth may disclose or share with us, the youth really feel safe in order to go into those deep spaces of self-expression.

David Fair: And, Deb, who exactly in the community are you working with?

Deb Gordon-Gurfinkel: So, currently, we are serving children through SOS Community Services Ypsilanti Parenting Network initiative--it's a bit of a mouthful--and also at Ypsilanti Community Middle School, where we've been for many a year, and we're serving seventh and eighth grades and hoping to expand to sixth grade. And then also, we have just started, as of January, at the Washtenaw County Children's Services Youth Detention Center.

David Fair: We talk about judgment-free, but might I be accurate in characterizing these kids as at-risk, Kelly?

Kelly Kundrat: Definitely. The juvenile detention center site would be fair to classify these kids at-risk. We typically partner with one of our community organizations to serve their children with the Telling It program, and they let us know what they feel like their community needs are. So, we work closely with the school social worker at Ypsi Community Middle School, and she often will directly refer some of the middle schoolers to us who she knows would benefit from some of this emotional literacy, emotional regulation, distress tolerance skills. And that is one of the benefits of working so closely with our community partners is that they're helping identify the need.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And you are listening to Washtenaw United. Our guests today are Kelly Kundrat and Deb Gordon-Gurfinkel from the Telling It program. And, Deb, try to give people a visual. Give me a word picture of what we would see if we were watching the kids at one of their get-togethers.

Deb Gordon-Gurfinkel: So, we always do a check-in when everybody comes in. Sometimes, we'll do like a playlist because we always have music playing. We have the music that they enjoy playing in the background, whether we're writing or doing role play or whatever. There's always music, so we'll do a little playlist to get the day up and running a check-in, followed by what we call "big body games," which is a really important part of what we do. It's not just to get the wiggles out, but it's also to integrate the mind, the emotions and the body. Everybody runs and screams and laughs, and just really, it's a very important part, particularly if you have any youth in the program who have experienced any kind of physical abuse. A coping mechanism is to separate the brains and the emotion from the body to cope with what's happening. And so, big body games are brilliant for integrating those aspects. So, they're ready for our deepening. We go from the big body games to a transitional activity, which starts to focus the energy, starts to bring in the themes that the kids have brought up over the previous weeks that we want to work on indirectly, as well as directly. We then go into what we call the meat and potatoes, or the protein and potatoes for the vegetarians amongst us, which is the deeper dive using multiple art forms. It can be any art form, sometimes mashed into an intersected moment where you have role play. You might do a throwdown, which is our vernacular for creative writing. You might do rap. There might be dancing. There might be visual art. There's a lot of mash-ups, but it's the deeply intensive work, which then leads to reflection. And that's when one of the team leaders will facilitate a reflection for the youth to then talk about what has come up, share what has come up for them during the session, and take an even deeper dive into some of the aspects that they have shared that they want to. They want to tell us knowing they will not be punished or in any way censored for what they share.

David Fair: Kelly, obviously, it's a program encouraging artistic and creative expression. How do you, as a social worker, pull in a kid who perhaps spend most of their time living inside their more analytic left brain, as opposed to their creative right brain?

Kelly Kundrat: So, I think that's where the big body physical activities really come in clutch for us. It's a space of a lot of fun, a lot of movement. And there is this abandonment of, "Oh, I need to make sure that I'm analyzing the space" when you're playing blob tag. It's hard to pull in that side of our mind. And then, there's this encouragement that art and creativity is not something that needs to be perfect. It doesn't need to be analyzed or good or any other kind of value judgment that we typically place on all of the things that we do. That doesn't need to happen here. And we find different ways in order to facilitate that, whether it's trying to draw with our eyes closed or trying to pull whatever we can away from that analytical, perfectionist attitude that is so often pushed in our society.

David Fair: Our Washtenaw United conversation with Deb Gordon-Gurfinkel and Kelly Kundrat continues on 89 one WEMU. They are from the Telling It program. And I want to talk a little bit about outcomes. How are goals and objectives set and then weighed in the end?

Kelly Kundrat: So, goals and objectives are set with our team, as well as our community partners and the youth themselves. We touch base on different emotional skills and mental health goals with the community partners, our team and our youth. We do a evaluation process at the start of the academic school year and at the end, as well as a midpoint check-in to make sure that we are meeting our goals, the youth are happy, they have an opportunity to tell us anything they would like to change. We just had our midpoint check-in very recently, and we got some great feedback from the youth. It was profoundly positive. And we heard some things that we really weren't expecting. One of our eighth graders mentioned that they can express themselves with how they feel without us making a big scene. We just listen. And another mentioned that lots of people with any type of mental health challenge should join. And she finished by saying this would literally save lives, which was really deep and meaningful for us. And I think quoting the youth directly has been really helpful beyond some of our quantitative outcome measures of, "Okay, we had 82% increase in the confidence that the youth have in their abilities at school, we have a 90% increase in alignment of time with others, and a 64% increase in the youth's ability to explain how they feel." And that's maybe not only verbally, but physically through any other method that point of emotional regulation and self-expression is central to our outcomes.

David Fair: Deb, as the youngsters in the Telling It program experience personal and collective growth, obviously, there's a comfort in living in that same space where they are free of judgment. But that's not the world that they have to walk back into. Ideally, what are the tools they're going to carry as they journey back into some harsh realities of life?

Deb Gordon-Gurfinkel: 100%. And if I may, could I start my answer by quoting from one of our most amazing team leaders who work at the juvenile detention center with us, and he's one of the team leads there. And his quote, I think in part, answers your question, if that's okay.

David Fair: Sure.

Deb Gordon-Gurfinkel: His name is Bryce the third. And I asked him to just give a summation in a way that you've just taught me. And this is what he wrote to me: "People tend to come in and want to tell this particular population, juvenile offenders, what to do. Telling It provides them with a space to be, which, in turn, promotes autonomy and self-advocacy amongst the participants. I've gone into juvenile justice centers with multiple other programs, but, in my experience, none have been as effective at getting kids to feel safe and willing to open up quite like Telling It. These kids are embracing, in part, embarking upon a journey of emotional transformation unlike anything I've ever witnessed." So, what I think that speaks to is the fact that it's not just in the moment. And so, I've been doing running, telling it for 23 years or so. And so, I've bumped into people who were kids in Telling It. And now adults, they have kids of their own. And I've heard anecdotally from there, that this moment was the moment that changed their lives, and this is the moment that set them on a different path from where they were, whether they were experiencing being unhoused or whether they were experiencing other issues. And what I love about this kind of work is, David, you don't know when you're going to have an impact. It's not about those big dramatic changes because they're often not sustainable. What happens is kids have these big dramatic, a-ha moments, not when you can always see it, but it is transformational, and it impacts the rest of their lives.

David Fair: And it seems to me that that is a sensation that everyone should have the opportunity to experience. Kelly, I imagine there are more kids that could benefit from this program than you're able to serve. School districts--they're hard-pressed to find resources to offer more and better help. I'm sure you have colleagues in the social work field that are just frustrated they can't do more. Are there any plans for expansion of growth with the Telling It program?

Kelly Kundrat: Yeah. Our plans always include expansion and growth, because we are regularly asked or invited by other community partners to open up a site with their population. And as you hit on, unfortunately, there is often a lack of resources, so we're unable to hire the staff or maintain the staff to open these additional sites. All of the kids mentioned wanting an expansion of time with Telling It, or an increase in days with Telling It. That's something we hear consistently and would love to provide. We just don't have the financial backing in order to do that.

David Fair: Well, I'd like to thank you both for coming in and sharing the story of Telling It and the amazing kids that are in that program. I'm most grateful.

Deb Gordon-Gurfinkel: Thank you so much, David. And thank you to United Way for making Kelly's position possible and making what we do currently possible. It's part of how we survive.

Kelly Kundrat: Yes.

David Fair: For 23 years and more to come, right?

Deb Gordon-Gurfinkel: Absolutely!

Kelly Kundrat: Absolutely! Thank you so much for having us.

Deb Gordon-Gurfinkel: Thank you, David.

David Fair: That is Telling It Program Director Deb Gordon-Gurfinkel and lead social worker Kelly Kundrat. For more information on this innovative program of empowerment and self-realization for kids in our community, pay a visit to our website at wemu.org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with United Way of Southeast Michigan, and you hear it every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


Telling It is a current recipient of United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s 2022-2025 Community Impact Fund—which supports solutions that mitigate and disrupt the intersectional impacts of poverty, racism, and trauma, in Washtenaw County.

The organization has received an award of $10,000 for unrestricted general operating support. This investment will help Telling It continue their mission of enhancing social emotional learning and the overall wellbeing of youth, through a blend of expressive arts and social work methods.

Funding from this grant was awarded on July 1, 2022 and will be given through June 30, 2025.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way for Southeastern Michigan to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support. Make your donation to WEMU today to keep your community NPR station thriving.

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Contact WEMU News at 734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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