Children’s Resilience Initiative in Walla Walla, WA, draws spotlight to trauma-sensitive school
-This community of 30,000 in eastern Washington State is well on its way to becoming a trauma-informed, resilience-building city.
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
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 wasundergoing 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.