VYFS aims to create ‘trauma informed community’

“With this program, we see a unique opportunity to create a culture shift”

With a grant from King County’s Best Starts for Kids, Vashon Youth & Family Services plans to help Vashon become a “trauma informed community” in an effort to improve the overall health and resilience of islanders.

“With this program, we see a unique opportunity to create a culture shift,” Roderick McClain, VYFS’ grantwriter, said. “The ultimate goal is for individuals and organizations to be better equipped and organized to deal with those experiencing the effects of trauma.”

The roots for the idea stemmed from Vashon’s higher than average ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) score, reported in a Washington State Department of Health/Centers for Disease Control study published in 2013. The study showed that out of 40 communities around the state, Vashon ranked fourth highest in the number of adults who reported experiencing three or more childhood traumas, which could include experiences such as abuse, parental discord, neglect, substance abuse/misuse, an incarcerated parent or a family member with mental illness.

The ACEs study and the island’s high scores are significant because the study also showed that parents who experience five or more ACEs are 14 times more likely to have a condition that results in trauma for their own children — so the stress is passed down through generations.

“This is a public health issue [adverse childhood experiences],” McClain said. “The higher numbers predict worse health outcomes later. The hope is that we can give people the tools so that they don’t unintentionally cause more harm when interacting with others.”

Studies have also shown that the negative impacts of ACEs can be mitigated through educational campaigns and community training programs. So, with funding from King County’s Best Starts for Kids program, VYFS is coordinating trauma informed care trainings with the Vashon Island School District, the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness, the DOVE Project, VARSA, Hispanic and Latinx community members, the Vashon Senior Center, Vashon Household and other island businesses and organizations.

“The county was really behind this,” Carol Goertzel, executive director of VYFS, said. “The staff at Best Starts for Kids were really inspired and supported this because the intent was to make it an island-wide effort. The grant was written to support families, and it all comes full circle. Everyone is connected.”

The concept of “trauma informed care,” philosophically, does not have a singularly accepted definition. But in practice, it has three requirements:

• Understanding the prevalence of trauma

• Understanding the impacts of trauma, and

• Understanding that current support systems may actively re-traumatize individuals who are experiencing the effects of trauma.

“We really saw this as an opportunity,” VISD superintendent Slade McSheehy said of the school district’s participation in the program. “About three or four years ago we had a group of kids come in to the elementary school that collectively had a lot of issues that were related to trauma, so we started doing some training through an ACEs framework to help these students and families. This VYFS program now gives us the opportunity to expand the training to our classified and office staff, para-educators and bus drivers.”

The district has two training sessions already scheduled for its non-certificated staff in May and June.

“We can’t get down to the business of learning until we are able to engage appropriately,” McSheehy said. “This has to be embedded into the work we do.”

McSheehy added that the district is also considering further training, in the form of a mini conference, in August.

To introduce the campaign to the community, VYFS plans to host a screening of the documentary “Paper Tigers” on May 21 at the Vashon Theatre.

The documentary offers a first-hand look at “trauma informed care” in action, as it follows six students at Lincoln Alternative High School in Walla Walla, Washington, for a year after Principal Jim Sporleder instituted a new approach to discipline in his troubled school — one based on the understanding that kids with “stressed brains” can’t learn. The results have been nothing short of remarkable.

Lincoln was created as a place to send the district’s “trouble” students, as a last chance for many — most with histories of truancy, drug use and behavior problems that saw them expelled from other schools. After Sporleder attended a conference in 2010 where he learned about ACEs, he returned to his school intent on changing the game. Three years later, the number of fights at the school had dropped by 75%, and the graduation rate had increased five-fold.

A community discussion will follow the screening.

“It’s all too easy to escalate someone’s trauma if you don’t understand how to engage in an informed way,” Goertzel said. “This is going to be a journey, not a sprint.”

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