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Loyola psychology students create Charm City Initiative to help children process Baltimore unrest

| By Stephanie Weaver
Charm City Initiative
Charm City Initiative at their back-to-school block party in August.

After watching the Baltimore unrest in April, Merrill Reiter, a clinical psychology master’s student at Loyola University Maryland, struggled to process what was happening around her. What’s more, she wasn’t sure how to get involved to help others, to repair the city that she called home.

Her inspiration came from a Baltimore City school teacher who said in a TV news interview that her students needed a place to decompress and talk about the unrest. Reiter had an idea—an organization that would help youth voices be heard within communities impacted by property destruction and looting.

She presented the idea to her Principles and Practices of Psychology class, taught by Crystal Willoughby, Psy.D., adjunct professor of psychology, and all agreed that this type of organization was needed. Then, Charm City Initiative (CCI) was born. The initiative started with a singular passion: psychology. The group set out to serve using the psychology skills they learned at Loyola, reaching out to several community organizations to offer counseling services and other support.

“People need to be heard. As psychology students, we knew the least we could do was listen. We’re working to integrate our skills to bring to the community what is most needed, whether that’s community resources, a program focused around discussions, or helping students fill out resumes and apply to college,” Reiter said.    

As an undergraduate student at the University of Missouri, Reiter started a similar program called Mend the Gap. The program promotes and encourages peers to have conversations about topics such as mental health, self-care, counseling, and healthy relationships that are usually not discussed or considered taboo. .

“When I came to Loyola and began working as a graduate assistant in the office of disability support services, I altered some of the topics to fit the population, including procrastination, test anxiety, self-advocacy, and self-care,” said Reiter. “Regardless of the population, the idea is to give people an opportunity to talk about real-life, everyday issues that are otherwise ignored.”

The new CCI partnered with Druid Heights Community Center (DHCC) to host a back-to-school block party in August in the Druid Heights neighborhood. The party included a back-to-school supplies drive and basketball tournament. Residents also had access to various resources, including haircuts, medical screenings, and résumé help.   

This fall CCI is hosting a community resource fair in November and family portrait opportunities around the holidays. The group is also working with DHCC to establish structured conversation about real-life issues into their after-school activities. CCI hopes to continue to co-host resource fairs and other programs and offer assistance within schools, such as after-school programs and college application assistance.

For Willoughby, supervisor of CCI, advocacy is second nature. She received her bachelor’s degree from Seattle University, a fellow Jesuit institution, where social justice and helping people became her mantra. Now, the tradition continues with her students at Loyola. Willoughby believes knowledge is power; advocacy and using education to help others is a main focus in her Principles and Practices of Psychology course.

“We really believe that education is extremely important. We’re so involved in academics. We know how to get into schools, and talk to students,” Willoughby said. “We want to use what we’re good at—coming together and talking to these students so they feel heard.”
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