Melissa Winston is a licensed marriage and family therapist whose specialty is understanding how relationship systems impact individual teens. Her skill and wisdom make her an integral team member for our Shelterwood families.

“We are trained to help create change in the systems,” Melissa explains. “That’s really tough, especially with teenagers.”

When teens struggle, their families struggle, too. Melissa works to bring clarity to how the family functions, or is having trouble functioning, together. She helps families find balance, define their values and learn new ways of relating to each other—all within the context of creating long-lasting change for the Shelterwood teen.

“Everyone is doing the best they can with what they know, but we don’t know what we don’t know.” Melissa says. “And so my role is to support every piece of the puzzle: the kid, the parents and their siblings.”  

Melissa’s path to Shelterwood

After spending time as a youth pastor and in youth nonprofit development, Melissa went back to graduate school.

“I felt ill equipped to help on a higher level,” she says. “I did a lot of praying for people, a lot of encouraging, a lot of pointing to Scripture, but I really felt like there was so much more I wanted to be able to do.”

She spent her early days as a therapist working with teens in lock-down facilities, residential centers and programs that focused on addiction recovery. All the while, Melissa was looking for a different kind of approach—one that combined a faith perspective with clinical wisdom and trauma-informed care. She found it at Shelterwood and began her position here in March of 2018.

Loving kids well

Melissa says the structure at Shelterwood is different than many other residential facilities. Melissa appreciates that Shelterwood’s programs are built around each teen’s needs, instead of making every resident follow to a strict “funnel” of requirements for completing the program.

“With kiddos with a lot of trauma, that often doesn’t work,” Melissa says. “They may conform for a time, but change is not lasting.”

She contrasts that to Shelterwood’s trauma-informed approach, which crafts an individual, organic treatment path informed by every student’s unique story.

“As we gently, patiently walk with kids and love them well, they see something really deep in us,” says Melissa. “When we love them in spite of their behavior, they start to feel that safety and genuine compassion, and change becomes a natural response.”

The same goes for teens’ families. “We don’t treat every family the same because no two families are alike,” Melissa shares. “We create a lot of safety for families to be vulnerable, and we’re able to impact a lot of systemic change…which is critical.”

A path forward for families

Melissa explains that families have almost as much homework as students do at Shelterwood. Parents begin with weekly therapy sessions and also go through Shelterwood’s Family Bridge program. Over time, as the both the teen and parents make progress, they begin joint therapy sessions as well. Siblings are often invited to join, too.

Family visits are planned with a lot of care and intention. “We want parents to see their kids as often and as quickly as possible,” Melissa says. Generally, within four to six weeks, first visits occur on Shelterwood’s campus and are supported by staff. As teens and families begin to heal, visits progress to off-campus stays in the Kansas City area, to brief home visits that eventually grow into longer stays that help prepare teens for the transition home.

Parents are also invited to annual retreats twice a year. “The entire goal is to create connection,” says Melissa. “Every new connection is a new neural pathway. We want to build lots of those so kids and parents can overcome those old, negative experiences…For many parents and kids, these parent weekends are some of the first times in years that they’ve had a good time together. They are very, very important.”

Outside of Shelterwood

When she isn’t working, Melissa enjoys mentoring other Shelterwood staff members, being involved with her church, decorating, and spending time with her husband, Erik, and her two boys, Malachi and Isaiah.

Melissa loves working with Shelterwood’s families. “It’s never boring,” she laughs. “Every day is an adventure. Every session and family is different. It keeps me on my toes! It’s fun.”

Learn more about how families and teens work together to create change at Shelterwood. Start the conversation today!