Tucked into a curve of the Columbia River, which marks the watery border between Washington and Oregon, lies the small town of The Dalles. Its claims to fame include being a major Indian trading site for 10,000 years, a camping spot for Lewis and Clark in 1805, and the terminus of the Oregon Trail.
Now The Dalles is seeking a different kind of notoriety. This city of 13,000 is the first in the nation to seek certification from the Sanctuary Institute—a model of organizational change that challenges every part of the community to examine and remake itself through a trauma-informed lens.
Dalles (pronounced “dahl,” with a silent “s”) is a French word for “slabs” of rock around and over which the Columbia once roared. The population of this rural community, 70 miles east of Portland, is mostly white, 30% Hispanic, and less than 10% other ethnicities. “It’s small enough that I’m able to call the chief of police and go out for coffee,” says Trudy Townsend, assistant to the superintendent of the North Wasco County School District 21.
The community is no different from others its size: If people don’t know you, they know someone who knows you. That intimacy provides a sense of belonging and connection that is hard to find in larger cities. But if you had told any leader—or citizen—in The Dalles in 2008 that deepening those connections and becoming a trauma-informed community was on the horizon, they would not have believed it.
That was the year when the U.S. Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) awarded the community a five-year, $2.7 million Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant. It specified that law enforcement, mental health, juvenile justice and education agencies work together to make schools safer and students healthier. “We added the Department of Human Services,” says Townsend, who was hired as project director. “One of SAMHSA’s hopes for an outcome was that communities would build better relationships and systems.”
Many communities that received the grants hired school resource officers. The Dalles did something different. With the exception of the school district, which was the grantee, the partners on the core team did not receive any direct funding. They wanted to focus on sustainable change, so they combed the agencies’ data for specific problems and asked how each partner could help resolve them. For example, when data showed significant behavioral issues at the middle school among a group of students, the director of juvenile justice volunteered to greet those students at school every morning, and a targeted intervention for boys was put into place.