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ACEs Champion: From a movie to a mission — Edwin Weaver's journey to help foster youth graduate from high school


(l to r) Elaine Miller Karas co-developer of CRM; Jim Sporleder, former principal of Walla Walla High School; and Edwin Weaver at the 2018 ACEs Conference & Pediatric Symposium in San Francisco.

After watching the late Jamie Redford’s 2015 film, “Paper Tigers,” about a Washington state high school where ACEs integration transformed graduation rates, Edwin Weaver knew he had to take action.

Weaver is the executive director of Fighting Back Santa Maria Valley, providing social services in Santa Barbara County, one of the lowest-income counties in California. His goal was to ensure that 100 percent of all foster youth in Santa Maria’s high school graduate.

But Weaver knew he had his work cut out for him, because the reality is that only 48 percent of foster youth graduate from high school, according to “The Invisible Achievement Gap,” a 2010 Stuart Foundation study of California K-12 students in foster care. Weaver says that based on evidence in the report, most of these young people are likely to continue a life of poverty.

Gun marked the turning point

It turns out that Weaver was a natural for the job of working with foster youth. Initially, his goal was to become a high school biology teacher. However, while studying for his teaching degree at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., he was asked to teach a genetics class at a local high school.

One day, he noticed that a 14-year-old student was absent. He later found out that the student had been arrested on the local commuter train for possessing a gun. Weaver learned that the student carried the gun to feel safe on his way to school.

That response marked a turning point for the future social worker. I said, O.K., I don’t really care about biology. I cared about why would a 14-year-old boy feel he has to carry a gun to go to school,” Weaver recalled.

Right after graduating with a bachelor’s in psychology, Weaver went to work with adolescents at one of the first community shelters in D.C., and while there, he met his future wife, who was an intern at the shelter. She was from Los Angeles, so Weaver followed her there and got a master’s in social welfare at UCLA.

After graduation, Weaver worked in child protective services in Los Angelesand Virginia, and then back in Santa Barbara County, from 2010 to 2014. There, he supervised assessments and investigation for Child Welfare Services, which saw 1,500 cases a year.

Fighting back

In 2014, he was asked to become executive director of Fighting Back: Santa Maria Valley.

Fighting Back’s mission is to partner with all members of the community to achieve resilience against substance use, reduce violence, and promote a healthy and safe environment for youth and families.

The non-profit focuses on keeping kids away from drugs and alcohol, cannabis and tobacco. It also aims to prevent truancy and help foster students finish their education.

All 30 full-time staff at Fighting Back are trained in the science of adverse childhood experiences as well as the Community Resiliency Model.

CRM is an evidence-informed set of wellness skills that can help mitigate the effect of ACEs.

ACEs is a term that comes from a landmark study showing how adversity in childhood leads to adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experience Study of more than 17,000 adults, first published in 1998, linked 10 types of childhood adversity — such as living with a parent who is mentally ill, has abused alcohol or is emotionally abusive — to the adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. Many other types of ACEs — including racism, bullying, a father being abused, and community violence — have been added to subsequent ACE surveys.

The ACE Study found that the higher someone’s ACE score — the more types of childhood adversity a person experienced — the higher their risk of social, economic, health and civic consequences. The study found that many people (64%) have at least one ACE; 12% of the population has four or more. Having an ACE score of 4 nearly doubles the risk of heart disease and cancer. It increases the likelihood of becoming an alcoholic by 700 percent and the risk of attempted suicide by 1,200 percent. (For more information about how this works and about the full complement of ACEs science, go to ACEs Science 101. To calculate your ACE and resilience scores, go to: Got Your ACE Score ?)

Just before becoming a practitioner of CRM in 2015, Weaver saw “Paper Tigers” and first learned about the ACE Study and the impact of ACEs science on adult development. His reaction? “A great movie, and really eye opening, but at the same time, it leaves you wondering, ‘What can I do?’”

That’s where CRM came into play, because it teaches people to control their nervous system. “It teaches anybody how to regulate their nervous system, pay attention to their sense of well-being, and focus on that,Weaver said.

For the past three years, Weaver has trained teachers to teach ACEs and the resiliency model in the county’s high schools. Last year, Weaver was also hired to teach these skills to all juvenile probation officers. Even during COVID19, these classes continue in large, well-ventilated physical spaces that follow social distancing and masking protocols.

Remarkable results

The results have been remarkable. The high school graduation rate last year was over 95 percent for the 25 foster students in the senior class. In February, Weaver will be training teachers at two elementary schools to help them understand the impact of ACEs on young children and how to help them regulate their nervous systems.

One example Weaver cites epitomizes the difference that understanding ACEs science and the resiliency model can make. “We had a foster student who kept running away from school whenever there was a math test. We taught the school counselor the Community Resiliency Model, and she taught them to this student, who started using them.

“Not only did this student help her own anxiety, she taught another student who had anxiety about taking tests how to control her anxiety as well,” he said.

In California, 17 percent of the population has an ACE score of 4 or more. A child with a score of 4 is more like to have a learning disability and behavioral issues in the learning environment, according to a state study.

And for Santa Barbara County, which has the second highest child poverty rate in the state and the third highest homeless student rate, Fighting Back’s services are even more critically important for youth and their families.

Living up to his name

As for that girl Weaver followed to L.A and who became his wife, she teaches at a Title 1 school in the area. The couple has three children, all of whom attended public schools. And Weaver’s own learning hasn’t stopped with CRM. He is now earning a master’s in the Dispute Resolution Program at Pepperdine University’s Caruso School of Law.

Extending his community activities to help youth develop resilience, Weaver lives up to his name by weaving himself into many social service organizations. He serves as co-chair of the California Children’s Justice Act Task Force, the Santa Barbara Human Trafficking Task Force, theSanta Maria Mayors Task Force on Youth Safety, and the School Attendance Review Board.

In turn, Weaver’s work has been recognized by the community for its efforts to help youth lead rewarding lives as adults. Fighting Back Santa Maria Valley was selected as the non-profit of the year for the 35th District in 2017, and last year, Weaver was selected by the Santa Barbara Foundation as emerging leader for Northern Santa Barbara County.

As for the film that kicked off Weaver’s journey to boost high school graduation rates for foster youth, check out a shorter videoversion of “Paper Tigers,” made by the Fighting Back team, including Weaver and some of the students in his program.

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