Healing Rhythms: Jim Borling’s work with the Sandy Hook Community


Dr. Jim Borling with staff members of the Resiliency Center of Newtown. Stephanie Cinque, the center’s executive director, is on the far right of the back row. To her left is Jennifer Sokira, music therapist, and Borling is to her left.

Jim Borling is a man of quiet solitude and calm. Compassion and the drive to play an active role in healing traumatized communities fill his over six-feet-tall stature.

Borling, a Radford University professor and director of music therapy, is an active support mechanism for workers involved with aftermath-community care for Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. A man fatally shot 20 students and six adult staff members Dec. 14, 2012.

During the early months of 2013, Newtown was consistently in the news, much like Blacksburg, Virginia, after the Virginia Tech shootings, where over 30 people were killed.

Following this 2007 event, Borling became involved with helping heal traumatized communities. While the Radford University community began to try to understand what had happened in the neighboring town of Blacksburg, Borling lead a drum circle at the university’s Dedmon Center before the memorial service at Virginia Tech.

“In traditional ritual fashion, the drumming called the community together to begin to try to understand,” Borling said, who became an active member of the Blacksburg Community Disaster Response Coalition. This organization provided services and support to the New River Valley.

When misfortunes such as the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook shootings occur, there is an immediate response. People try to help. They send donations and volunteer where needed. Then the media frenzies abate and it appears the world returns to some state of normalcy. But it does not.

Instead the community, such as Newtown or Blacksburg, must deal with the aftermath, the holes in everyday life where someone once resided. Maybe it was a child, maybe a teacher. And then there are the constant reminders of past. The healing is slow.

"To be perfectly honest, the healing for the survivors of the Sandy Hook Shootings (more typically referred to as 12/14) is entering into a very difficult stage," Borling said.

Though over two years have passed since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, many in the community are unable to find a healing path. Understanding the impact it has had on everyone concerned is a challenge.

"Data are clear in stating that it can take upwards of 10 or 15 years to move through the healing process needed after such deeply traumatizing events," Borling emphasized. "The local community is facing the challenge of coming together and working in a unified manner for the best of all involved."

Every three months since December 2012, Borling travels to Newtown to work with staff from the Resiliency Center of Newtown (RCN), a program affiliated with the Tuesday’s Children organization.

Founded to promote long-term healing from the impact from events of Sept. 11, 2011 is the reason Tuesday’s Children exists. Currently it supports children and families facing and surviving acts of terror worldwide.

Borling originally became involved with the Resiliency Center through professional connections within the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA). As a board certified music therapist, along with his experience after the Virginia Tech shootings, he was asked to contact the Connecticut Music Therapy Services, LLC. Through this, he became involved with those close to Newtown and Sandy Hook Elementary School.

"During my visits I have had the honor to meet and enter into dialogue with many of the local professionals who are working to build a network of support and healing for the community,” Borling said.

On May 31, 2014, Borling served as a moderator for the event “Community Connections: A Day of Shared Experience” where survivors, parents, and others from Columbine HS, Virginia Tech, the Amish Nickel Mines, Chardon High School and the local Sandy Hook and Newtown communities came together to share, learn, and gain understanding from their collective past.

When Borling works with the professionals at the Resiliency Center, he provides an opportunity for staff to unwind and spend time working on self-care. Sometimes referred to as staff development, the services he provides are also considered a day to simply reflect and process.

"What is clear during my time at RCN is that we need to work on issues around 'Compassion Fatigue,' also referred to as 'Vicarious Trauma,’" he said. "Given the nature of the clients that the RCN staff serves daily there is a need to self-nurture, to take time to honor the challenge of working in this type of deeply traumatized community."

Borling describes compassion fatigue as the gradual toll that long-term care to those in need of psychological first aid takes on service providers.

“This may be a gradual process but it is no less profound than what might be experienced by direct survivors of the trauma,” he explains. “Those who serve in a traumatized community may begin to feel that same sense of disillusionment that the immediate survivors do.”

For service providers, it is crucial for them to develop strategies and opportunities to remain grounded. Self-care may include a process of community building and social engagement. Such care is often built first through acknowledging the need for help, and by connecting with support and help, post-traumatic growth can occur; a sense of balance can be restored.  

“Jim's time with the group helps to strengthen the bond the staff already has and help us to see how significant and important that connection is within our professional environment,” said Stephanie Cinque, the founder and executive director of the Resiliency Center of Newtown. “Jim helps us to give permission to be ourselves and take advantage of the support from the staff and realize the common thread we have.”  

Borling’s objective when he works with those at the Resiliency Center is to provide an honest opportunity for self-reflection and understanding. Utilizing music therapy techniques, the groups he works with improvise with hand drums and rhythm instruments, coming together through a nonverbal musical relationship.

They discuss song lyrics to explore themes that are important in their work.

"We use music and imagery as a means to access inner strength and core resources to carry on the work for the community," Borling said about the processes he uses.

For music therapist Jennifer Sokira, self-care is also team care. She credits Borling with teaching the staff that through self-care, they are better able to function as a group.

“For me it has helped me learn to lean on and trust my coworkers,” she said. “I think that people who come to the Resiliency Center sense that we are solid and that is one of the reasons people feel comfortable coming for therapies and programs with us.”

As time moves forward, Borling continues to help with Newtown and to find the positive in humanity. For the foreseeable future he will continue to go to Newtown quarterly, contributing to the overall community process of resilience.

“I have learned at a deep, deep level how the power of love and service can transcend the tragic events that a community may face,” he said.

“The staff at RCN have answered a call and are stepping up at a time when help is so desperately needed. They know that they are in it for the long haul. They neither seek, nor do they expect, attention for their work. They simply show up, day after day, meet with the children and talk with the Moms… the Dads… and trust that what they have committed themselves to is making a difference. And I am here to tell you; the difference that they make is profound.”

Jun 18, 2015