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Therapist finds a niche in classroom

Brenda Banta volunteers at a Hillsborough school, using visualization therapy to help kids increase self-esteem and reduce stress.

By SHERYL KAY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 17, 2001


LUTZ -- Six years ago Brenda Banta was clear on her future. She had just moved to Florida, settled down with her husband and then-4-year-old son, John, and prepared to apply to local universities as a doctoral candidate in psychology.

A year later she found herself estranged from her husband and facing the unknowns of single parenthood. "I wanted to be a psychotherapist, but a graduate degree program was just unreasonable to take on at that time," said Banta, 46, who today lives in Lutz.

Still wanting to help others, Banta searched for an affiliated career that demanded only a brief training period and would provide her with decent pay as well as a schedule that would allow her to be home for her son.

Massage therapy fit that bill perfectly. Banta tried Raki and therapeutic touch energy healing. "They were not for me," she said. "I needed a technique derived more from scientific research."

Then, about a year ago, Banta began training in CranioSacral therapy, a non-invasive touch-based therapy that facilitates the rebalancing of an individual's core rhythm, based on the movement of the cerebral spinal fluid. CranioSacral therapy was first developed by John Upledger, an osteopath by training whose clinic in Palm Beach Gardens has received national attention. The practitioner employs a gentle touch on the head, neck and back areas in an effort to release any restricted movement of the fluid.

Banta combines this practice with creative visualization, a guided meditation conducted by the therapist for the patient. She incorporates both techniques into massages that generally last between 30 and 90 minutes.

In some cases, a doctor will write a prescription for CranioSacral therapy for fatigue or pain management. With such a prescription, the patient can sometimes obtain insurance reimbursement for the sessions, for which Banta charges $30 to $100. But most of her patients pay cash.

In addition to working with her regular patients, Banta is bringing her services to the Hillsborough County public school system by volunteering at Learning Gate Community School in Lake Magdalene, where she conducts creative visualizations for the fourth and fifth grades.

Every Friday the therapist spends one hour with each grade at the charter school, leading students through a sequence they are told to imagine, in an effort to help reduce stress and heighten self-esteem.

"These kinds of activities are commonplace with athletes, in higher education, (and in) management seminars, and the thinking is that it works well," said Banta.

"If it's a known thing that works for adults, then letting kids go to a place that is all-powerful, where they can improve their self image, their ability to learn, their ability to express themselves, then we ought to be doing that."

Students are invited to sit at their desks or sit or lie on floor mats. Banta then conducts breathing exercises, followed by an oral presentation of a scene, such as a pond or a lake.

"I may tell them they are standing by a stream, and ahead of them they see a crystal cave," she said. "When they enter the cave, everything they see is bathed in a pure white light.

"I tell them they feel complete love and total acceptance."

After about 30 minutes, the students are invited to share their feelings aloud.

So far the reactions have been very positive, Banta said. One fourth-grader sent her a thank-you letter, completely unsolicited.

"Dear Ms. Brenda," the card began. "Thank you for coming to help me seek my feelings and to hear my own words to my heart. I didn't know that I had so many feelings coming to my heart."

Nicola Kuba, fifth-grade teacher at Learning Gate, is enthusiastic about Banta's work.

"It's improved the children's writing as far as being detailed and more imaginative, and it's helped them express their feelings," she said. "Kids get stressed just like we do . . . and what's great about it is that it's teaching them how to relax at an early age, which is something we never learned to do."

While Banta said the short-term goal is to help the students find a process for relaxation to enhance learning and increase creativity, the long-term agenda is more global.

"If this process allows every child that I work with to in some way realize that they are creating the world that they live in, then it is my hope that they will see that the kinder the world is, the happier they will be."

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