Janine Francolini: Flawless Foundation

Founder, Flawless Foundation

Seeing the Perfection in Every Child

Janine Francolini envisions a world where every child feels flawless, and is understood and embraced by society. Flawless Foundation, which Janine began at her kitchen table “like a bake sale,” is the five-year result fueled by her vision. Flawless Foundation works to provide education and awareness regarding the neuroscience behind behavioral challenges in children, offering training for teachers, parents and clinicians in “Collaborative Problem Solving,” a program based out of Mass General/Harvard Medical School. The organization has also helped to create fun and inspiring, holistic wellness programs for youth.

With a master’s degree from Columbia University, and a 15-year career in education, Janine is a sought-after speaker and consultant, working with clients on fundraising and mental health advocacy. She is also on the board of the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the USC Gould School of Law.

Janine explains that her work with Flawless Foundation was “always a calling”. A family history of mental health issues, including her own experiences with severe depression and anorexia, highlighted for Janine the lack of support and absence of compassion available for people experiencing brain-based health issues. This has been a driving force in her work.

Endeavoring to promote a spirit of thoughtfulness and non-judgment, Janine encourages a fresh evaluation of the language used in our society surrounding mental health issues, and the people who struggle with them on a daily basis. She points out that an awareness of our everyday expressions about mental health will make an enormous difference towards creating a world where every child is regarded as flawless. Emphasizing the importance of opening the discussion, she asserts, “The time is now. Actually, it was yesterday”.

Janine keeps an ongoing record of her thoughts about mental health issues and her journey in her work at Flawless Foundation in her Huffington Post blog (www.huffingtonpost.com/janine-francolini).

What experiences in your life led or inspired you to found Flawless Foundation?
I had a history of mental health challenges as a child. I wrote about those experiences in my blog. At various times, depending on circumstances and environmental stressors, those symptoms would become more prominent.

I have always been very proactive in being aware of these issues with my son. When he was in kindergarten, he went to a school that didn’t work for him and it triggered extreme stress and extreme behavior. We had some challenging years. I was concerned about the lack of resources available, so I started Flawless Foundation at my kitchen table, like a bake sale.

Tell us about the success of building Flawless Foundation.
Flawless Foundation has taken off like wildfire! We began by supporting a K-12 school in Southeast Portland for children with behavioral challenges, called the Pioneer Special School. We trained teachers in Collaborative Problem Solving. We provided yoga, gardening, art, and music programs for the students, and set up a Girls’ Empowerment group. The students got a tremendous amount out of the different programs, and they really took ownership of the garden!

We have also offered local events, and participated as a “wellness sponsor” at a recent children’s mental health conference in Salem for 275 educators, parents and mental health professionals. Each training conference is an ongoing dialogue about changing the paradigm for children’s mental health. We promote holistic self-care for everyone. Our events in New York City, Los Angeles and Portland have been very fun, and we are making this a cause to celebrate!

By the way, my son is 12 and a half now, and he is doing incredibly well—off at summer camp in Vermont for two weeks, riding the subway in New York with his friends… Crafting the environment has played a large part in helping him to be successful.

Flawless Foundation’s slogan is “seeing the perfection in every child.” Can you say a little about what that means to you?
It means “seeing the light”. Everyone has light and dark parts of themselves, and the children we work with are very much judged and regarded only by their weaknesses and their external behaviors. So, it’s finding that spark of divinity and that light in every single human being, no matter where you are. It’s something that can be learned and practiced over time. It starts with a lot of internal work: having self-forgiveness and self-love. That’s how you practice. How can you love other people if you don’t love yourself?

What information is currently available about the connection between brain health and behavior, and how does that information inform the work of Flawless Foundation?
It’s really important for us to understand that this is neuroscience. It’s not about a lack of will, integrity, or morality. You are not a bad person if you have mental health symptoms or challenging behaviors. It’s understanding that there are certain skills that can be taught—skills like frustration tolerance and impulse control. At Think:Kids, the Center for Collaborative Problem Solving, their motto is “kids do well if they can.” Their approach helps to facilitate relationships between kids and adults, and they teach the necessary skills to for kids to succeed in school, at home and in life.

Can you elaborate a little more on Collaborative Problem Solving?
Dr. Stuart Ablon from Think: Kids presents a very effective, evidence-based approach to working with kids with behavioral challenges that is used by parents, teachers and clinicians. It’s getting kids out of juvenile detention, it’s reducing suspension rates—it’s revolutionary work. Oregon is the leading state in this work! In Oregon, Collaborative Problem Solving is in virtually every system of care—foster care, the juvenile justice system, schools, and the psychiatric hospital system. There is a partnership between Oregon Health & Sciences University and Massachusetts General Hospital, Department of Psychiatry.

You mention in your Huffington Post blog that if we are educated and aware with regard to mental health issues, we can intervene at the onset of symptoms and eliminate a great deal of pain. Are there some specific examples from Flawless Foundation’s work that speak to that?

A person’s behavior can change slowly or dramatically, depending on what’s going on. Any kind of behavior change is something to be aware of—any change in eating or sleeping patterns for example. Sleeping and eating are so essential to functioning well. Isolation is another warning sign. A child spending time alone twelve hours a day playing video games is of concern. Early intervention is the key—seeing changes in behavior and habits, and responding as early as possible.

There’s a yoga program that we support in which there was a particular boy who was experiencing a lot of serious challenges. He found the yoga very calming, and he really connected to himself and improved a great deal (from a variety of different treatment sources, of course). We are giving these kids tools for peace and happiness—yoga, gardening, music, art. We are teaching them that taking care of your body, mind, and soul is so essential. It’s also about promoting healthy relationships—we are helping them to connect to others, which gives them hope.

Some of your blog posts are about mental health issues and the judicial system. What do you feel should be happening?

The key is prevention and intervention, starting in the schools, so that the children don’t slip into the “school to prison pipeline.” Detention, suspension, dropping out, getting into trouble… it spirals into a cycle that is very tenuous. At Flawless Foundation we’re all about preventing people from getting into the judicial system to begin with.

There is a great story in the blog about an interaction with a gentleman you met at an Oakland, CA gas station around Passover. Would you be willing to share that story?
I stopped at a gas station in Oakland, California before going to the airport. It was Good Friday, the first night of Passover, and this man came up to me. I was between the car and the gas pump, so I was sort of cornered in. He came out of nowhere and was very aggressively asking me for money. He said, “I just got out of prison. Don’t worry, I didn’t kill anyone, but I just got out.” I was really panic-stricken at first, but I said to myself, “Okay, Janine, do your Flawless thing. Can you see the perfection in this situation?” My yogic practice took over, and I became really calm. I looked him in the eye and I said, “Let me just finish pumping my gas, and then I will give you some money.” He said that he would give me some space. Even though it was pretty clear he was on drugs or in some kind of altered state, his demeanor really changed. When I gave him the money, he started to cry and said that I was an angel.

It was such a gift to me because “we are one” is the bottom line here. We connected on a deep level in our humanity, and that is “sacred intimacy.”

“Sacred intimacy?”
Sacred intimacy is the ultimate human connection at those really important moments, like during a birth or being with someone who is about to take their last breath. There’s this sense of life force that is so palpable. That’s what this work is about—creating change through human connection. We want to go to those deep, hidden places inside people, where they are truly themselves. We’re blowing the lid of the can, and saying, “Let’s be whole! Let’s celebrate all sides of our humanity.” Disowning parts of ourselves just takes us to this a disenfranchised place where we look at people who are different from us as “other” and “less than”.

At Flawless Foundation, we are about stopping the discrimination—the “othering”—regarding mental health issues. The language we use to talk about mental health issues and brain-based behavioral challenges matters a great deal.

 If the community wants to support the work of Flawless Foundation, how can they do that?
Lots of opportunities—volunteering, connecting on social media, sharing our online videos, and of course, donations are always greatly appreciated! It takes a village, and we are so grateful to be in this place now as a national organization that was born out of grass roots support.
www.flawlessfoundation.org

photographed by Tim Sugden

About The Author: Merlin Varaday