(Very special thanks to ACEs Connection staff member, Carey Sipp and my colleague Dr. Andi Clements for their collaboration on this article.)
It was 2014 when I first learned about the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study while working for the local police department. After writing a grant to fund a Family Justice Center, I heard Dr. Vincent Felitti, one of the authors of the 1998 Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, speak at a Family Justice Conference in California. About thirty days later, I heard Dr. Joan Gillice, director of the National Center for Trauma Informed Care, speak at a conference in Florida on trauma informed care. These two presentations impacted me in a powerful way. I felt compelled to introduce ACEs to my community at a time when my role was reducing drug-related and violent crime in Johnson City, Tennessee along with being tasked to create an intervention to reduce recidivism among felony offenders with addictions.
In this role, and with no background in criminal justice, I heard about ACEs and I wondered why no one was including this information in efforts to reduce crime and recidivism. I was also working with kids who were struggling in school, and had learned that many had caregivers with an addiction. I’d never heard of the “cradle to prison” pipeline until I worked for police. As a mother and grandmother, I wondered to myself, “who are these children that are born with a predisposition to incarceration?" The stories I heard, touched my life and I’ll never forget them.
So, after I learned about ACEs, the first thing I did was to create a big notebook with 35 tabs representing all the community agencies I was working with to reduce crime. I had one goal in mind – learning if there was a practical application of ACEs science in each type of professional sector. That is when I learned about ACEs Connection in 2015. I literally spent hours reading ACEs Connection – to see if I could find towns wherein the department of juvenile justice, the housing authority, the police, and others, were using ACEs science, or if there was any mention anywhere of other people doing something meaningful with the information. If there was, I wanted to know about it.
From this research, I learned about Robin Saenger in Tarpon Springs, Florida and had several inspiring phone calls with her. I also learned about people in Gainesville, Florida, leading the Peace4Gainsville work and contacted them. It wasn’t long until I filled that notebook with ACEs Connection articles – to the point it almost wouldn’t shut. Thanks to ACEs Connection I was able to understand that meaningful applications existed in every type of professional sector. So, I took the notebook and made appointments with several department chairs at East Tennessee State University (ETSU), and asked them who would help educate our town about ACEs science.
Dr. Andi Clements, a Psychology professor at ETSU, and longtime friend, came along with me. After hearing my presentation, she said. “I think I am supposed to help you.” So, like that, she and I began our work. As we met to plan our next steps, I showed her the notebook with the articles and the links to resources. I actually made her a copy of this notebook which still sits on her office shelf to this day. By finding those resources I was able to become self-schooled in understanding trauma-informed care and ACES science. During this initial conversation, I convinced Andi that every professional sector could be trained to provide programming through a trauma informed lens. From there, we decided to educate our community. I had been leading 19 crime prevention programs at the police department which twice received national awards. These award-winning programs were facilitated with the help of 35 community agencies. Due to the tremendous synergy we had built around public safety we had the coalition needed to begin this work. Thanks once again to ACEs Connection and learning from others, it served as a springboard, where we saw regional interest in ACEs happen very quickly. Andi and are also people of faith. Before we left meeting that first day, we prayed together over the idea of “educating our town” about ACEs. We invited God to have a part from the beginning because honestly it was not anything in either of our job descriptions nor did we have any real formal training nor funding to do it.
I reached out to Dr. Joan Gillece inviting her to come to Johnson City in October of 2015. She and Brian Simms, MD, came and introduced ACEs concepts to almost 400 people in an auditorium at ETSU. After Joan’s visit, we contacted her asking for curriculum we could use to present to stakeholders. She provided us with a draft course from SAMHSA entitled, Trauma Informed Approach, Key Principles and Assumptions. She shared with us the Six Guiding Principles to a Trauma Informed Approach. I spent the next few months studying this course and the Instructor’s Handbook and shortened it into a four-hour training which seemed more practical for professional development. After Andi edited it, then I started telling my community partnerships about it. One by one they came along. The Boys and Girls Club was the first to join in 2016 and the rest – is history!
In 2017 after training over 4,000 professionals while working our busy day jobs, we decided to contact Dr. Joan Gillece again to ask if we could host a webinar in 2018 to meet some of the other cities who had been “training their town” about ACEs. Instead she informed us, she didn’t know of another city so would we hold a forum and tell our story? In September of 2018 we hosted a SAMHSA Forum in Johnson City, Tennessee and shared how we’d created a trauma informed community. In announcing the forum, we attracted the first ladies of Delaware and Tennessee. We also attracted Dan Press of the Campaign on Trauma Informed Policy and Practice (CTIPP).
We promoted the Forum through ACEs Connection and people from 20 states came to hear us share our community’s story!
Following the SAMHSA Forum, there were news articles about the event from local media; we shared those stories on ACEs Connection. Based on the success of the event and the fact that our community was somewhat unique, Andi and I decided in 2019 to co-author a Building a Trauma-Informed System of Care Tool Kit. Within a few weeks following the SAMHSA Forum, I was offered a role to move to the largest healthcare system in our region. They created a new role of Trauma Informed Administrator where I was to help them address ACEs as a social determinant to health. All the while I was writing articles in ACEs Connection to document the progress of our work. While still working for police, we started a community page called, Northeast Tennessee ACEs Connection, and it proved a very effective way to get our calendar up, and make the tools available to regional partners. ACEs Connection shares a wealth of tools, including the Inclusion tool, and all of these are available through Growing Resilient Communities 2.0. They shared the toolkit Andi and I created as well , the Trauma-Informed System of Care Toolkit.
(First Ladies, Tracey Quillen Carney and Crissy Haslam attending the 2018 SAMHSA Forum )
In only three years, we saturated the community with education and our local champions began to develop amazing programming. In the fourth year we hosted the SAMHSA Forum sharing our story and shining a light on what it looked like to have libraries, police, healthcare, education, and more providing services through a trauma informed lens. Even though we still have work to do, we feel confident we are well on our way! Whenever I deliver a keynote address on “How to Build a Resilient Community”, I add, “You could start the stopwatch at April of 2016, as that was the first training we did.” Then almost to the day four years later our work had made the headlines of the local newspaper and the regional healthcare system provided a generous gift of one million dollars over five years to ETSU to launch the Strong Brain Institute. We had seen ACEs science gain regional acceptance as an upstream approach to reducing many life and health disparities faced within rural Appalachia. Now when I coach other cities on becoming trauma informed, I say, “Go to the coalition in your town that is full of life and has diverse partners. Use that group as the hub to begin and build your work around ACEs.”
Due to an explosive interest in ACEs science on a national level and the growing demands I receive for training, I am now training and coaching cities and organizations on a national level. Recently I trained the early childhood education leadership in the state of Mississippi and now am doing the same for Tennessee. I have contracted with a school district in Virginia and one in Tennessee to help them become trauma sensitive districts as well as training police in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, to help them become trauma informed. The Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police partnered with me to provide police and educator training in preparation for launching a program called Handle with Care statewide in early 2021. Handle With Care is a partnership between schools and law enforcement where any child who has been involved in justice situations with law enforcement present, the police notify the school with the child’s name and the words “handle with care” so teachers and others know to help the child the next day. This program eliminates retraumatizing the child by having to take a major test or face other challenges when they are likely to be tired or upset from whatever happened at home that required a visit by law enforcement.
Now as a national speaker and consultant on ACEs science I’m delivering keynote addresses, trainings or serving as a subject matter expert on panels. In almost every presentation – ACEs Connection is a very important part of my story. Without it, I could not have expanded my knowledge base nearly as quickly nor made the network I have built.
So why do I support ACEs Connection? Since we are nearing the holidays, I thought about getting creative and making my list like the “Twelve Days of Christmas” but my list quickly grew beyond twelve reasons!!
- ACEs Connection will provide you with an endless access to training and webinars.
- ACEs Connection will allow you access to people with lived and real experiences in doing this work. (I have reached out to numerous people who author articles about their programming and never once has someone not been willing to have a conversation with me.)
- By using ACEs Connection, we were able to host a forum and share about it where people who have never heard of Appalachia and Northeast Tennessee came to learn about us. At the Forum we showcased the ACEs champions in our own community. After the event many agencies have had follow up visits from people in other states wanting to learn more about their programs.
- ACEs Connection gives me ways to collaborate and learn about what other states or cities are doing.
- ACEs Connection provides the invaluable opportunity for growing your network and partnerships. With tools like “Ask the Community” you can get advice from experts in this field.
- ACEs Connection will provide you with a wealth of tools such as the Inclusion tool and Growing Resilient Communities 2.1 in which our Northeast Tennessee ACEs Connection and Toolkit were featured.
- ACEs Connection has become a trusted brand. When the ACEs Connection team recommend a tool, I trust it because I know they do their homework and vet best practices.
- The friendships – I have met many wonderful friends on ACEs Connection.
- Thanks to ACEs Connection, I didn’t feel so alone in the early days talking about ACEs science. I knew there were other people who were as passionate about ACEs science as I was and am.
- ACEs Connection kept me inspired. Many times in my journey I met people who were skeptical about ACEs science. All I had to do it get on an ACEs Connection webinar and soon I would feel like I was at a family reunion! It was ACEs Connection where I learned about the Campaign for Trauma Informed Policy and Practice, and now I am a core member of National Trauma Campaign!
- Thanks to ACEs Connection I have launched a career in this science, teaching and training people about ACEs science full time, independently
- Much to my amazement, I also am doing work globally in the UK, Lithuania, and Australia. This would not have happened without ACEs Connection. Due to exposure of our work in ACEs Connection, we have people from Arizona to Australia come to visit us in Tennessee!
- Within the United States, state leaders reach out to me. Without ACEs Connection, they would not know I exist nor the work I’ve helped to pioneer.
- ACEs Connection helped put my community on the map! In 2017 due to an article I published I was invited to present at the Mobilizing Action for Resilient Communities (MARC) summit in Philadelphia. At that event, my community was used as the model for the ACEs Connection Community Tracker.
- The quality and user friendly ACEs Connection staff are exceptional. I've never asked a question of any ACEs Connection staff member where I did not receive the reply and answers I needed.
- Without ACEs Connection, I’m not sure that my story would be what it is.
- Without a doubt, in my mind, ACEs Connection is the premiere online learning collaborative about ACEs science.
By sharing my story, I hope you can see the significant role ACEs Connection can have in helping any person, organization or community advance in their knowledge and practice of ACEs science. I urge you to find ways to support this important resource, create a community, use the tools, sign up for webinars and then share it with your colleagues, peers and friends. Thanks to ACEs Connection, ACEs science is now being embraced as an upstream approach to solving the many challenges’ all cities are facing around addiction, domestic violence, child abuse and more. Even amidst the global pandemic of COVID-19 we can see a beacon of hope and empathy is shining. Thanks to the work of the dedicated team at ACEs Connection, they have provided the mechanism to help this light burn even brighter! Here’s how to donate! https://www.acesconnection.com/pages/donate