Alumna Delia Owens

Alumna Creates Cat Character to Teach Coping Skills

by | Jul 2, 2024 | Alumni Authors, Health

Casey Hersch ’01 has forged a career helping people as a psychotherapist and animals as a rescuer. Now a new book for kids combines both passions.

I Am Pawso, self-published at the end of last year, follows an anxious cat as he learns critical coping skills and lessons that reduce stress.

Hersch, a licensed clinical social worker based in Davis, by her own accounts changed unhealthy family patterns by leaving her rural town in Plumas County for college. At UC Davis, she was a first-generation college student, double majoring in communication and managerial economics, eventually earning her master’s degree in social work from Chico State.

“It was a very, very big deal for me to get accepted to UC Davis and to also get the Regents Scholarship, because that was a testament that all that hard work that I had done and all the sacrifice that I made and how hard I worked,” she said. “And so going to UC Davis was like a big experience of coming out of a cocoon and going into a big world.”

Hersch spoke with UC Davis Magazine about her inspiration for the new book and her goals for helping kids.

Where the Crawdads Sing book cover

What gave you the idea to write a children’s book?

I grew up in a low-income household with a lot of poverty, a lot of trauma, lots of stress. I had a lot of adversities, or what you would call ACEs, which are adverse childhood experiences. And research shows that the more adverse childhood experiences you have, the more likely you are in your adult life to have health problems. And that was the trajectory of my life. I was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition called Crohn’s disease. So most of my life has been my own healing journey and trying to figure out how I can live a quality life. But at the same time, the emotional and the physical are not separate.

And this was along the time that I was also studying and training to become a clinical social worker. So naturally I was working with kids throughout that period. I just really felt that there’s a lot that we can do to teach kids to learn coping skills and basically what I call their “Pawso practices” that can help us endure adversities in life. Meanwhile, as I was deciding to write a children’s book, I also have always had just a really profound love for my animal companions, and I was fostering. I’ve had kittens and cats my entire life, many of them, and I feel like they’ve been such a huge part of my resilience and my ability to overcome a lot of hardship.

Why did you think of Pawso as the main character?

My two foster kittens, Pawso and Samba, were really traumatized, and [I noticed] childhood trauma looks very similar. I watched the kittens to see exactly what they needed in order to grow into these confident cats, and it just became very natural for me to use Pawso, who was my very anxious cat, who I might add I wasn’t intending to adopt. Pawso really inspired me as a main character because he was so relatable. And animals in general are just easier for kids to relate to. I decided this was the way to work on this children’s book that I wanted to bring out to the world with a mental health message, but also underneath all of that is a message of the importance of animal companionship and animal rescue.

What are some situations that Pawso deals with over the course of the story, and how does he deal with them?

The story is organized where Pawso goes through his day and faces a series of situations that stress him, that cause him to question his self-worth. There are situations like speaking up to an authority figure and using your voice when something happens that doesn’t make you feel good, and bullying and teasing and other peer relations. The theme of the story is that everywhere Pawso goes the trigger to his upset feelings is that no one can say his name right. He’s called Pasta, Pluto, Poncho, Picasso. And he gets very upset in each of these situations. And that is the trigger point. They are opportunities to have a lot of different problems come into the mix.

There’s a mantra throughout the story when Pawso gets very upset. He has a feeling he sometimes wants to strike with his claws. His fur stands up, his face gets hot, which is a way for kids to connect to how we feel anger and feelings in our bodies. And then Pawso has moments when he reflects and steps back. And each time, he says, “but for a moment my mind starts to churn. I can change my thoughts with a shake and a turn.” And that symbolizes the moment when Pawso learns he has the power to turn a situation around and have a different perspective and feel better and calm down, all from his own connection to his mind and his body.

The whole book rhymes, so what made you want to write it that way?

I must have been out of my mind when I sat down. The story just started to come to me, and the mantra came to me first: “But for a moment my mind starts to churn. I can change my thoughts with a shake and a turn.” I had a choice to write the whole book in rhyme or just leave the mantra as the [only] rhyme. And so I said, “Okay, I’m going to go with rhyme.” And it was incredibly difficult. I had a lot of help from really wonderful people in my community. We looked at the rhymes so many times to try to get the meter right, to get the flow right.

What’s next for Pawso?

My focus right now is, along with the I Am Pawso book, I developed a companion guide for parent teachers and clinicians. And that’s something that people can download for free. The link is in the back of the book once they purchase it. That guide is very rich with lessons and discussion questions and activities. I spent a tremendous amount of time putting that guide together so that anyone apply the “Pawso practices” and have tangible tools to implement from this framework. My primary goal right now is to get that guide in schools, and I want to see it in therapists’ offices and in nonprofits. The whole focus is that I want to make a difference in as many kids’ lives as possible. As soon as I can see that I Am Pawso and the guide are being implemented, then we can keep going. And I have a lot more stories in me.

 

This Q&A has been edited and condensed from a longer interview.