In Walla Walla, Washington, the journey to implement ACEs research has been akin to a wild ride on a transformer roller coaster that arbitrarily changes its careening turns, mountainous ascents, and hair-raising plunges. And sometimes the ride just screeches to a frustrating halt.
The odyssey began in October 2007, when Teri Barila, Walla Walla County Community Network coordinator, heard Dr. Robert Anda, co-investigator
of the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study), speak at a Washington State Family Policy Council (FPC) event.
Without a doubt, he said, childhood trauma is the nation’s No. 1 public health problem. The ACE Study – the largest public health study you never heard of — shows that childhood trauma is very, very common. (ACE surveys in 22 states now echo the results.) And this childhood adversity causes violence, including family violence, as well as the adult onset of chronic disease and mental illness.
The Family Policy Council was the umbrella organization for 42 community networks across the state that were addressing local issues such as youth substance abuse, school drop-out rates and teen pregnancy. Anda implored the coordinators to “get something started” in their own communities because he was getting little traction on a national level.
Barila returned to Walla Walla fired up. The city, with a population of 32,000, has three colleges, a robust agricultural community, including a newly flourishing wine industry, and a revitalized downtown. But one out of four of its children live in poverty, 65% of its residents have not attended college, and gangs and drugs are common. Barila was determined to educate the community about the dire and costly consequences of ACEs and the “clear impact of stress on the developing brain of a child.” She organized a community meeting in early 2008 and brought Anda in for a two-and-a-half-hour seminar; 165 people showed up.
At the end of Anda’s presentation, a parent named Annett Ridenour walked to the front of the room, and, with tears streaming down her face, took the microphone out of Anda’s hand. “I have 10 ACEs,” she said, “and now I understand my life.”
“This made me believe in the liberating effects of ACEs,” writes Barila in the “Getting Started” chapter of the the Resilience Trumps ACEs Manual. It was also the unofficial start of the Children’s Resilience Initiative.
The first order of business was to find a partner. With her ten years as community network coordinator, Barila had plenty of experience mobilizing and developing capacity in communities. She needed someone with a background in mental health. She found that person in Mark Brown, the new executive director of Friends of Children of Walla Walla, a local mentoring program.
The second order of business was, as Barila and Brown write in the manual, to “plow the field.” In other words, identify critical community leaders and organizations, explain the research and the goal of creating “a community conversant in ACEs and resilience,” and answer their questions and concerns.
Brown and Barila compiled a list that included people from the school district, city government, mental health, social service
agencies, the local offices of the state Department of Health and Human Services, law enforcement, juvenile justice, public health, local media, business leaders and parents. After more than 40 conversations with individuals and small groups of people, they were ready to hold the first team meeting.
The Children’s Resilience Initiative (CRI) officially launched in February 2010. Its members developed a plan that helped identify the goals, vision and responsibilities of the 25-member team and its facilitators, Barila and Brown. The goals: to raise awareness of ACEs and brain development, foster resilience, and embed the principles in the community. Barila recalls that “a tremendous amount of effort” went into the document; it turned out to be an extremely useful navigation chart for the organization and its members, providing the “elevator speech” and the confidence to speak to CRI’s goals.
Brown also knew that, as the initiative matured, it was likely to develop other goals. One that emerged was the need for the members to integrate the principles of ACEs awareness and resilience into their own organizations. This raised the ante on members to report progress, or lack of it, at each meeting. It also expanded the leadership, notes Barila, as people developed their own approaches to working with others in the community.
A series of turning points began in April 2010, when the school district sent a group to the “From Hope to Resilience” conference in Spokane, whose education community was undergoing its own transition to learning about and integrating trauma-informed practices.
Jim Sporleder, principal of Lincoln High School, an “alternative” school attended by students who couldn’t make it at Walla Walla High School, was among that group. He heard Dr. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, speak about ACEs and the effects of toxic stress on children’s developing brains. Sporleder realized that he’d been approaching discipline all wrong. He returned to Walla Walla determined to integrate trauma-informed practices in his school.
One year later, CRI sponsored a community event, the Children’s Forum, and brought Medina in to speak. The school board closed schools for half a day so that all teachers, administrators and staff could learn about ACEs research.
“Looking around the packed 1,200-seat auditorium that day,” Brown noted in the manual, “we knew that we were moving from dipping water from one bucket into another and into the practice of starting fires.”
Barila and Brown knew that they’d made significant progress when a survey revealed that, over two years, community awareness of the term ACEs increased five-fold.
A trauma-informed school shines a national spotlight on Walla Walla
In April 2012, Walla Walla was catapulted into the national spotlight when the story about how Lincoln High School had dropped its suspensions by 85% over one year went viral (with more than 700,000 page views to date). Sporleder, Barila and Brown began giving presentations about their work around the country. Filmmaker James Redford started work on a documentary (scheduled for release in 2015) about the school and its trauma-infomed approach.
And then the rollercoaster came to an abrupt stop.
In June 2012, the Washington State legislature closed the Family Policy Council, which was providing basic funding for the state’s community networks, including the network in Walla Walla. The Gates grant also ended.
Barila and Brown learned that with this type of major social change being driven by a perfect storm of research—the epidemiology of ACEs, the neurobiological effects of toxic stress on children’s brains, the long-term biomedical and epigenetic consequences of childhood trauma, and the science of resilience—the traditional two- to three-year funding cycles can be challenging. That’s because foundations tend to support an individual organization’s short-term accomplishments and not the steady, but slow, change in a community’s systems. Barila and Brown had always maintained that their work was a two- to three-generation endeavor, not a two- to three-year project.
And despite the overwhelming success at Lincoln High School, the school district took no further steps to integrate trauma-informed practices in its other schools, because it wanted to wait for additional documentation on specific strategies. Brown and Barila knew that it took multiple exposures to ACEs research for people to begin to integrate the knowledge into their own lives and then to the rest of the community. This development underlined that realization.
Nevertheless, the Barila and Brown kept plugging along. In September 2012, the CRI launched ResilienceTrumpsACEs.org; it explored ACEs and resilience through a card game whose deck listed specific experiences and skills such as learning to ask for help. “I developed the deck based on parents saying: ‘I know what the word resilience means, but what do you mean when you talk about the building blocks?’” says Barila. “That gave me the idea to come up with forty-two examples.”
In 2013, they were able to scrape together small grants to keep the momentum going. They were hopeful for more substantial funding in 2014 and 2015. But the setbacks did not dampen their resolve.
Over the last year and a half, CRI’s education and outreach efforts have continued. The parents’ initiative is going strong. A workshop for the business community drew 130 people. They’ve done training for staff at a state penitentiary in Walla Walla and “just about every agency, service provider and entity that will have us in,” says Barila. “We stopped counting, but we’ve given over 500 presentations in the valley, including adjacent communities like Dayton, and out of state, too.”
And, as part of a small community grant from the Gates Foundation – the Lincoln High School ACEs and Resilience Program — a member of the Walla Walla community spoke to the health class at Lincoln High during the 2013-2014 school year to tell her or his own story of trauma and resilience. Another part of the program for pregnant and parenting teens offered a daily class in resilience, basic parenting, and child development. Transportation and child care insured that teens were able to attend the classes.
The CRI team continues to receive an increasing number of requests from the community: from Head Start, the local community college, and a call-in project for gang-affected parents and kids to learn about alternatives to gang violence and sex trafficking. Those alternatives were based on a framework of ACEs and included vocational training, education, counseling and housing.
Barila and Brown persevere, one conversation at a time, to deepen the understanding of what ACE-informed changes mean. For example, says Barila, the sheriff is extremely supportive, but he always raises the question law enforcement must respond to: “What do you expect us to do? We still have to arrest them.” To begin to change the mindset—from abusing and further traumatizing already traumatized people to treating everyone with respect—CRI facilitators give him examples.
One story Barila tells comes from a nearby sheriff who understood how police actions may trigger certain behaviors in people who are traumatized. Rather than arresting a person suspected of methamphetamine use with a barrage of lights, noise and agitation, certain to trigger a fight-or-flight response, officers kept the room dark, used quiet voices and talked calmly to the person, who offered no resistance.
At a strategic planning session in November 2013, the CRI team was “recharged,” says Barila, for the next two to three years. Policy, measurement and increased outreach in the business and faith-based communities rose to the top of their to-do list.
Recharged, and moving forward into policy changes
Policy changes need to happen at many different levels, notes Barila. In September 2013, the Walla Walla City Council issued a proclamation, in response to a memorandum of understanding developed by the CRI team, that recognized the CRI’s efforts to make Walla Walla a trauma-informed community. That led to a declaration that October 2013 was Children’s Resilience Month in Walla Walla. At a community festival that month, with speakers, music and food, families played 10 resilience games developed by Lincoln High School students taking a course in ACEs, brain development and resilience. It is being repeated this October.
Barila pointed to the education system as another sector in need of policy change—for instance, a school board resolution directing the school district to move toward becoming trauma-informed. Such a policy would require the district to train its teachers, administrators and staff. Teachers and schools would be evaluated on their use of trauma-informed practices, and data-gathering would determine whether those changes were working.
Establishing common measurements and standards is also a vital next step, so that CRI can learn whether its work is making a difference. In the works is a standardized survey for service providers to use with parents and children to “measure gains in parental resilience and in social-emotional competency as a result of our work,” says Barila. The 25 members of the CRI are doing a self-evaluation to measure changes in awareness, understanding and integration of resilience into daily practice. In February, Lincoln High School deployed a resilience-focused survey that evaluated interventions according to academic data and ACE scores. The survey, published in July, found that student resilience improved, and students with higher resilience scores earned higher grades, irrespective of their ACE scores, thus providing support that changes in school practices in which teachers and administrators were sensitive to students’ ACEs, made a positive difference.
Meanwhile, CRI’s leaders continue to search for community leaders and members who can take on the goals of the initiative. “The key is finding champions in the right places,” says Barila.
For example, the former school resource officer at Lincoln High School—who had served during its transition to becoming trauma-informed—was promoted to sergeant. He invited Barila and Brown to join him in leading a workshop for the Walla Walla Police Department. He helped them gain entry to the sheriff’s department, too, and conducted a workshop with them.
Recently, a school board member encouraged the superintendent to start figuring out how to integrate trauma-informed practices in Walla Walla’s other schools. As a result, they are expanding trauma-informed practices into Head Start and three elementary schools..
Finally, Walla Walla is probably the only trauma-informed, resilience-building community that has its own song, an anthem to the healing power of community. It was written by Brown:
So, I was dealt a bad hand
But that ain’t gonna stop me
A fistful of ACEs I can rise above
I’ve people around me
They’ll lift me up – won’t drop me
They see me – help heal me
I know now I deserve love
Broken cups, broken dishes
Broken bones, family torn apart
I lost my childhood – my dreams and childish wishes
But I will never lose my heart
I’ve got the power to bounce back
I’ve got the heart to succeed
I’ve got the people around me
I’ve got the grit that I need
So if you come upon some kids
With their eyes hurt and staring
You could be a life raft, help them rise above
Put away your judgment, yes, and cover them with caring
In spite of their sad stories
They can bounce back, and they deserve love
This is one of several articles about how different towns, cities, states and provinces are beginning to embrace an ACEs movement and become engaged in preventing/treating ACEs and promoting resilience. They were done as part of a Community Resilience Cookbook, produced by the Health Federation of Philadelphia with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.