A Volunteer's Story


I know from personal experience that trauma can be life-changing, but I didn’t know that volunteering to talk about trauma could change my life. And the lives of others.

First, if you don’t mind, a little background. I’d visited Petersburg, Virginia, over the years because my brother and sister-in-law live and work in the area. I loved it! My brother’s colorful tours of Old Towne and Pocahontas Island were educational and entertaining. My sister-in-law’s encouragement to eat in local restaurants and experience Friday for the Arts were only topped by both of them treating me to evening classes at the Petersburg Family YMCA. It was being connected to the Y that helped my husband and I feel connected to the city when we moved to Petersburg in early 2015. At the Petersburg Y I was encouraged to become more active in the community, so I did.

That’s how I wound up at a Petersburg City+Schools Partnership planning retreat in April of 2016, and heard about a presentation for social services and health professionals led by Dr. Allison Jackson of Integration Solutions. It was only days later, but I made time to attend. When the presentation ended, I raced to the front of the room and told Dr. Jackson I wasn’t one of the people her presentation was intended for, “but I get it.” She said, “Good! We need everybody.”

I got to Dr. Jackson only a few steps before Virginia Department of Health Crater District-Petersburg Health Department Director Dr. Alton Hart. That’s only because I was sitting closer to the front. Dr. Hart got it, and did something about it. He had Dr. Jackson train a cohort of service providers from different sectors so they could operate in a more trauma-informed manner, and help spread the word about the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on lifelong health and wellbeing. They let me in, too.

Through a process that felt like an old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movie where one shouts, “Let’s put on a show,” Dr. Hart and a few of us decided to host the Beyond ACEs: Building Community Resilience Summit in Petersburg in June of 2017 as a cohort project. We knew our community needed a common language around ACEs, and for professionals working with children and families to become more “trauma-informed.” The Health Department led the way, with significant support from United Way of Greater Richmond and Petersburg, The Cameron Foundation, several faith leaders, and too many volunteers to name.

Our efforts leading up to the summit included visual, dance and spoken word arts residencies for area youth. Cohort members also did a series of free workshops about ACEs and spoke to any group that would listen, the Southside Trauma-Informed Community Network (STICN) devoted a work group to the summit, and we did media interviews. Summit events were held at five Petersburg churches, included a H.O.P.E. Fest (Healing Our People Everyday) in the Health Department parking lot, and drew more than 300 participants.

Unlike Mickey and Judy, our work didn’t end with the “show.” Since the summit, the health department has coordinated trauma-informed trainings and workshops across the Crater Health District that have reached more than 550 people (and counting), coordinated trauma-informed arts experiences for youth and families, and launched a second cohort of ACEs presenters trained by John Richardson-Lauve of ChildSavers. The Crater Health District also worked with Virginia State University, the Central Virginia Chapter of the National Black Nurses Association and the Area Health and Wellness Ministry on an ACEs training for nurses that earns continuing education credits, as well as the Petersburg School Department to get the same thing for local educators. Summit speaker Father Paul Abernathy was so impressed he invited Petersburg to be one of the cities in the inaugural FOCUS Pittsburgh Trauma-Informed Community Development Institute, held at Duquesne University in June of 2018. I was privileged to be a member of the team. To top it all off, we’re planning our second Beyond ACEs: Building Community Resilience-The Impact of Race, Culture and Poverty Summit for August 8-10, 2019.

I have been deeply involved in many of these efforts. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn, so I’ve attended other trauma-based summits, conferences and pursued additional training. I look at everything now through a trauma-informed, resilience-building lens, and feel like I wound up in Petersburg to discover what a dear friend would call my “God job”: helping to spread the word about the impact of trauma on lifelong health and wellness, and how that knowledge can help us build individual and community resilience.

But the bottom line is “the bottom line.” Even with countless volunteer hours devoted to this work, like the hours I have contributed, organizations that provide valuable trauma-informed resources can only do so much without more funding. They should not have to hope for a visionary leader like Dr. Hart. They should be able to count on financial support no matter who is in charge. I dream of a day when there is more funding for train-the-trainer programs that effectively share trauma and resilience-building information, research on best practices in Virginia, and programs where community members are significant partners.

I look forward to more opportunities to talk to people across Virginia and elsewhere about trauma and resilience, like the workshop I am presenting at the International Listening Association convention in Vancouver on March 21, 2019. Maybe I’ll come across someone like me who gets it and can really help spread the word about ACEs. Or I won’t, because he or she needs a real meal, or gas, or child care in order to attend the event, and the sponsoring organization couldn’t afford to help. Too bad, because we need everybody.

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