By Michilea Patterson, The Mercury
POTTSTOWN >> A local initiative is bringing awareness to research that shows traumatic childhood experiences such as poverty, sexual abuse and drug addiction can lead to lifelong challenges in mental, social and physical health.
Representatives of the school district, borough and police department, as well as several other organizations, have come together to form the Pottstown Trauma Informed Community Connection. The steering committee was created to decrease some of the violent and chronic health issues in Pottstown that result from trauma experienced before the age of 18.
An acronym that is becoming well known in the public health sector is “ACEs” which stands for adverse childhood experiences. These experiences can be hunger, emotional neglect, witnessing domestic violence, physical abuse, having a parent that’s incarcerated and so much more.
Dave Kraybill, Pottstown Area Health & Wellness Foundation executive director, said early learning programs in Pottstown are digging deep to find true ways to help young children in the area. Kraybill said traumatic childhood experiences are a key predictor of future challenges in children and adults. He said now that there’s more research on the topic, it was important to make Pottstown a more trauma-informed community.
“There’s an awareness now that what happens in those earliest ages can affect your educational outcome; it can affect your personal outcomes, and it can affect your health outcomes when you’re 30, 40, 50 and 60,” Kraybill said.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study about adverse childhood experiences found a direct link between trauma and chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. These experiences can also lead to mental illnesses, violence and being the victim of violence. Childhood trauma is very common and actually about two-thirds of the adults in the study had at least one adverse experience as a child.
Kraybill said the goal of the trauma steering committee is to help eliminate some of those adverse experiences or to help children respond differently so that they are resilient and overcome such challenges. This will allow them to have better lives as children and as they grow into adults, Kraybill said.
The trauma steering committee informed community partners about their mission during PEAK’s annual meeting last month at Montgomery County Community College. PEAK stands for Pottstown Early Action for Kindergarten Readiness and prepares young children for success in school. PEAK coordinator Mary Rieck leads the steering committee. She said after seeing organizations involved in ACEs initiatives in Philadelphia, talk started about making Pottstown more informed.
Attendants of the annual meeting learned through information handed out that traumatic childhood experiences can actually lead to a shortened life span. Rieck said adults with several adverse childhood experiences are at an increased risk for heart attacks, diabetes and other life-threatening conditions.
“If you have four ACEs of the 10 identified ACEs (in the CDC study), that can be 20 years off your lifespan,” she said.
The CDC study about ACEs was started because of findings at an obesity clinic, according to an article on the news website, “ACES Too High,” that reports research about adverse childhood experiences. In 1985, Dr. Vincent Felitti of Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine in California was trying to figure out why 50 percent of the people in his obesity clinic dropped out. The clinic was designed for individuals that were 100 to 600 pounds over their recommended weight range. And although the clinic participants were successful in weight loss, they still decided to leave.
Felitti, along with his colleagues, found that many of the people had been sexually abused as children. They discovered that the clinic participants saw being overweight as a solution to make them feel better about the traumatic experiences they had as children. Similar to a drug addiction, those that were overweight ate to tolerate anxiety, depression and fear. After Felitti shared what he found with other health professionals, he had a discussion with Dr. David Williamson of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The talk led to the research of the ACEs study.
Today, the CDC Adverse Childhood Experiences study is used to help inform people about the seriousness of traumas experienced at young ages. The Pottstown trauma-informed steering committee was created about two years ago and began by discussing how to change some of the traumas Pottstown children were facing.
Last year, the committee brought in Jacob Tebes, professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, as a consultant. Tebes said traumatic experiences in children may lead to adverse changes in the body and brain. He said ACEs can “set in motion genetic, cellular and other biological processes in the brain and body as well as physiological and social processes that increase a person’s lifelong challenges in health and mental health.”
During the PEAK annual meeting, Tebes led a panel discussion with several individuals about their own experiences with witnessing childhood trauma in Pottstown.
PEAK Community Parent Organizer Valerie Jackson said sometimes aggressive behavior in children may just look like a child is acting out and needs more discipline.
“But when you began working with the families and you understand the dynamic … what this child is reacting to is the fact that there’s an incarcerated or missing parent, or the child is hungry, the child is experiencing neglect,” Jackson said.
Pottstown Police Capt. Robert Thomas is also on the steering committee and participated in the panel discussion. He said the police department had 24,000 calls last year and many of those calls involved domestic violence in homes with children.
“We don’t always have the time to stop and think about what’s the next course of action for the kids,” he said.
Now being more informed about traumatic childhood experiences, Thomas said he hopes to change that. He said Pottstown Borough police officers will go through training so they can better understand what ACEs are and how they can better help children facing such situations.
Rieck said the steering committee wasn’t only created to make people aware of childhood trauma but also to show the community that it’s possible to overcome these experiences.
“It’s not your destiny,” she said speaking of the statistics of increased risks of various health conditions.
The committee has organized several Trauma 101 Training sessions for the community to attend and become better informed. There will be a training session Aug. 24, Oct. 6 and Nov. 15 at Pottstown Middle School. For more information or to RSVP, contact Chris Golden at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 610-970-6614.
David Genova, the school district’s wellness coordinator, said he is encouraging adult volunteers of the walking school bus program at Rupert Elementary to take the training.
“Pottstown School District is taking such a huge role in social and emotional learning because many of our children are faced with trauma,” he said. “Our walking school bus volunteers are going to see these children every single day of the school year.”
Howard Brown, the health foundation’s program officer for schools, active learning and community development, said he’s currently working to develop a program that will address some of the traumatic childhood experiences as well as the social and emotional aspect of being part of a team. He said sports teams help create a sense of belonging which can be beneficial to children that experience trauma.
“I just really recognize the importance of mental health and how it integrates with a person’s overall health,” he said.
Former Pottstown School District Superintendent Jeff Sparagana said the Pottstown Trauma Informed Community Connection is looking to support both children and families with adverse experiences.
“Each of us in our life probably can recount some experiences that were not positive and qualify as ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences). It’s not what you experience, it’s how you respond,” he said.
The Pottstown Trauma Informed Community Connection will have a partners launch meeting that’s open to the public. The meeting is July 20 at the MCCC community room from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. At the meeting, the committee will discuss the significance of childhood trauma. RSVP to Mary Rieck at 610-970-6655 by July 11. For more information about the Pottstown trauma-informed initiative and adverse childhood experiences, visit the website www.pottstownmatters.org.