27 Sep Reaching for resilience
When Bobbi Rose stood in front of the woman handing out school backpacks at a First Call for Help giveaway a few years ago, she was tired.
She was tired from a relentless struggle to make ends meet, exhausted by the mercilessness of a life in poverty.
As so often happens when funds persistently run short, life’s problems compound. For Rose, that meant living through a series of one-thing-after-another episodes where the “breaks” taunted just out of reach if they even appeared at all. She wasn’t one to seek help, and on the rare occasions she did – with appeals to all of the usual programs aimed at helping those in need – she was denied.
She just needed some guidance.
“There’s nobody in town that does free budgeting classes,” she told the woman handing out the backpacks.
Rose continued to voice her frustrations, and the woman continued to listen.
And then the woman pointed her to a program unlike others that Rose had encountered: Circles of Hope.
“She gave me information for Circles and was like ‘Go. Just have dinner once and see what they’re about,’ ” Rose recalled.
“Circles is hard to describe, I think, until you actually go through it.”
Reno County paces or outpaces state and national averages in almost all poverty indicators. Reno County’s population is 64,342. The U.S. Census Bureau can define the poverty status of 59,195 of those residents. Of that number, 7,927 residents live in poverty; that’s 13.4 percent of that definable population. Statewide, 11.9 percent of the population lives in poverty.1,2 The 2018 national poverty annual income threshold for a family of four, consisting of two children under age 18, was $25,465.3 Additionally, according to annual health rankings, 17 percent of Reno County children live in poverty; the Kansas average for 2019 is 15 percent. Reno County ranks 68th out of 105 Kansas counties in overall health indicators.4 And in 2018, 55.62 percent of Reno County students qualified for free and reduced lunches.5
Evidence also suggests that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), or childhood trauma, coincide with economic hardship.6 Though data for Reno County is not currently tracked, a 2014 Kansas Department of Health and Environment survey found that 54 percent of participating Kansas adults reported an ACE score of at least one. An ACE score refers to the points accumulated from a roughly 10-question survey assessing the number of adverse childhood experiences in a respondent’s background. Every affirmative answer receives one point. According to the KDHE, a score of three or higher was more common in households with an annual income of less than $15,000 compared with adults whose households made more money. Additionally, ACEs prevalence was higher for those who did not graduate from college.7 Nationally, the percentage of children with at least one ACE hovers at 45 percent.8
The effects of poverty and trauma cascade: If one lives in poverty the likelihood of encountering trauma that exacerbates the poverty rises. Equally, if one experiences trauma, especially during childhood and the years of the greatest brain development, the incidence of poverty also rises. In other words, the two experiences frequently intertwine and produce outcomes that result in higher rates of mental and physical health problems that ultimately burden the economy through stresses on the health care, government, and criminal justice systems. These systemic woes then become community woes with taxpayers, ultimately, financing the cycle.9
ADDRESSING THE PROBLEM
Hutchinson Community Foundation accepts poverty and trauma as community problems to be addressed holistically at a systems level through collaboration and reliance on relationships, and it helps support programs that employ these methods. One such initiative is Circles of Hope based at Trinity United Methodist Church.
Defined as a relational, community-based, consumer-driven program, Circles empowers participants to lead their own ways out of poverty. These Circle Leaders, as they are called, decide what help they most need to better their circumstances, be it financial training, advanced education, social and emotional support, medical assistance, or guidance on any of a number of other obstacles that can cage people in poverty. Volunteer community members known as Allies then work with the Leaders on their goals.
According to Jim Unruh, Circles Coach, this more self-directed model, along with the initiative’s reliance on building safe, stable relationships, positions Circles for particular impact.
“It’s really relational work, and so that makes Circles kind of unique and distinctive. We’re really promoting that social connection is the transforming power to help families become who they want to be,” Jim said.
While Circles works directly with those in poverty, the ecumenical Poverty Collaborative Task Force – with which Jim’s wife, Heidi, volunteers – works to transform the community’s poverty-response system. Representatives from several local churches formed the group in 2016 in response to a community poverty simulation.
Churches often serve as first-responders to poverty; thus, the task force focuses on better equipping them to address the needs of those living in financial hardship through enhanced peer relationships across churches, nonprofits, and other community groups. The task force also provides congregations the mentorship tools to walk beside those trying to escape poverty. The group maintains a broad mission, allowing flexibility in addressing poverty’s adaptive challenges, but as with Circles, building relationships and forging alliances stand at the heart of its work.
“We know that responses to poverty have to be relational to be effective. You have to use systems thinking. You have to be both about change for individuals and change community-wide, addressing people’s behavior but also community factors, systemic factors,” Heidi said.
The emerging trauma-informed movement seeks to educate school districts, employers, and other organizations about ACEs and help them develop practices that foster resilience. In collaboration with ESSDACK, Reno County school districts continue conversations about effective methods in supporting children who exhibit behaviors stemming from trauma and the subsequent prolonged exposure to elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can lead to a variety of physical and mental health problems.10,11
Rebecca Lewis-Pankratz, ESSDACK’s poverty resolution and trauma-informed consultant who also oversees 10 learning centers and 60 to 70 families across the state in moving them out of poverty, works with districts to give teachers tools to empower students. Project Based Learning serves as one such method.
“[PBL] is really important for the kids to come off the edges of the group and start to contribute because Project Based Learning kind of evens the playing field because kids aren’t competing against each other; they’re building projects,” she said.
Other classroom strategies that teachers now deploy focus on guiding students on self-assessing moods, communicating them, and regulating their responses to those moods. By way of early intervention, Horizons Mental Health Center administers a $240,000 grant-funded three-year pilot program known as Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-Up (ABC) that launched in spring 2017 at five test sites encompassing 35 Kansas counties. The program is part of Project NeuroNurture, an effort led by United Methodist Health Ministry Fund aimed at encouraging science-based early childhood programs such as ABC. In addition to United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, the REACH Healthcare Foundation, Kansas Health Foundation, Wyandotte Health Foundation and Hutchinson Community Foundation are funding partners on the initiative. The home-visitation program connects trained coaches with parents of children 6 to 24 months of age to help them identify stress triggers that can lead to prolonged cortisol exposure. Researchers at the University of Kansas also collect samples from a subsection of child participants to monitor cortisol levels over the course of their engagement with the program.
In USD 308, Rick Kraus, assistant superintendent of human resources, said the district sits in the “early stages” of a four-phase strategic continuum in which most 308 staff members possess a knowledge of the trauma-informed movement’s concepts and are working to implement strategies for resilience.
For nearly two years, Kraus and Lewis-Pankratz have spearheaded an effort dedicated to helping schools and organizations move further along that four-stage continuum to become fully trauma-informed. Resilience Reno County, composed of organizations and community members, draws 20-25 participants to monthly meetings and maintains an email list of about 120. The group acknowledges the larger social and economic impact of unaddressed trauma on communities.
“Recently, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment did a survey,” Kraus said. “In Reno County, about 20% said they don’t feel mentally or physically well at least 14 days each month. This has far-reaching implications for all employers and organizations across the county. The CDC estimates depression to cause 200 million lost workdays each year at a cost to employers of $17 to $44 billion.”
At ESSDACK, the energy generated by the positive social impact of developing resilient strategies propels the work forward.
“Watching this movement happen … there is implementation inside of school systems for all ages of kids,” said Lewis-Pankratz, “and the outcomes for this are decreased suspensions and expulsions, increased graduation, reduction in suicides, math and reading go up, teacher sick days go down, teacher well-being increases to where teachers are saying they feel hopeful about coming to work again. It’s powerful.”
For Rose, 35, and her husband, Theron, poverty was what they knew. The couple earned $450 a month between the two of them during their first year of marriage.
By the time Rose stood in line at the backpack giveaway 16 years later, the couple and their four children had weathered low-wage jobs and bouts of physically severe and financially debilitating health problems and had “hit a point where we just couldn’t grow anymore; no matter what we tried, we just weren’t making progress.”
When Rose eventually joined Circles of Hope, she gained not only the budgeting knowledge she sought but also a new support network, increased ties to her community, and tools to address social and emotional barriers that stemmed from a childhood of trauma.
The first thing she learned, Rose said, was “being able to see what a healthy relationship looks like.”
Poverty and trauma are often rooted in the generations. Rose, through her Circles education and ACEs assessment, can now more clearly see those connections in her life. She now ponders if a childhood of health and learning problems, economic hardships, and being let down by those she trusted contributed to the health problems she has faced as an adult.
“The big piece for me was understanding why things happened the way they did without blaming,” she said. “I tried to put that blame aside and look at it with no emotion as if it wasn’t me and find that understanding of why I was in that situation, why did people fail me.”
With the support she found in Circles came an improved sense of self-worth and confidence: “The longer I stick with it, I think relationships is the biggest piece.”
Having finally crossed the federal poverty threshold, the Roses’ next income goal sits $8,000 away. In the meantime, they continue ticking off milestones on their journey toward what Circles calls their “future story,” that is, what their lives ideally might look like. Along with the income goals and whittling down medical debt, they reached their next big moment: home ownership. The couple closed on their first home June 21, 2019.
And now after her Circles experience, a deep certainty resides within Rose that her future story will also include helping others in poverty and trauma achieve theirs. To that end, in the summer of 2019, she became the coordinator for the Hutchinson chapter of Circles of Hope. And when she feels ready, she will pursue another aspiration.
“My ultimate goal is to become an Ally.”
- Become an Ally for Circles of Hope. Be the relationship that could change someone’s life. Contact Circles Director Marla McKee at (620) 669-7569 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Connect with Resilience Reno County or help propel the work through the four stages. Contact Resilience Reno County VISTA Resource Coordinator Felicia Smith at (620) 615-4053 or email@example.com.
- Invite someone you don’t know well over for dinner. Be welcoming. Reduce the isolation that can come from poverty and trauma.
- Join the community reading “Childhood Disrupted” by Donna Jackson Nakazawa.
- Volunteer to provide a Circles of Hope meeting dinner. Contact Circles Director Marla McKee at (620) 669-7569 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Volunteer at a school or youth organization. Become a safe, stable adult for a child in trauma.
- Help front-line organizations provide emergency assistance to keep people safe and stable. Contact New Beginnings Inc., (620) 663-2200; First Call for Help, (620) 669-0159; The Salvation Army, (620) 663-3353; Prairie Independent Living Resource Center, (620) 663-3989; St. Vincent de Paul Society, (620) 708-1863; St. Rose of Lima, (620) 662-6443.
- See how your faith organization is connected to this work and get involved.
- Contact Hutchinson Community Foundation to tell us how you would like to make a difference in the lives of people struggling with poverty or trauma in Reno County. Call (620) 663-5293.
- United States Census Bureau. “QuickFacts Reno County, Kansas.” Accessed May 24, 2019.
- United States Census Bureau. “Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates.” Accessed May 24, 2019.
- United States Census Bureau. “Poverty Thresholds.” Last modified January 24, 2019.
- County Health Rankings & Roadmaps. “Kansas: Reno County.” Accessed May 24, 2019.
- “2018 Kids Count Reno County,” Kansas Action for Children. Last updated: December 3, 2018.
- Vanessa Sacks and David Murphey, “The prevalence of adverse childhood experiences nationally, by state, and by race/ethnicity,” Child Trends Research Brief, no. 2018-03 (February 20, 2018): 6.
- Ericka Welsh and Ghazala Perveen, “Adverse Childhood Experiences Among Kansas Adults: 2014 Kansas Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System,” Kansas Department of Health and Environment (March 2016): 6.
- Sacks and Murphey, “The prevalence of adverse childhood experiences,” 1.
- Clancy Blair and C. Cybele Raver, “Poverty, Stress, and Brain Development: New Directions for Prevention and Intervention,” Academic Pediatrics 16, no. 3S (April 2016): S30-S36.
- Jennifer S. MiddleBrooks and Natalie C. Audage, “The Effects of Childhood Stress on Health Across the Lifespan,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, (2008): 1-18.
- Vincent J. Felitti et al., “Relationship of Child Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 14, no. 4 1998: 245-258.
Wendy Skellenger, communications officer, can be reached at email@example.com.
- Trauma aware: One’s first introduction to the concepts
- Trauma sensitive: Recognizing the signs of trauma
- Trauma responsive: Mobilizing and equipping stakeholders to respond to trauma
- Trauma informed: A full understanding of how to help individuals overcome trauma with a holistic, organization-wide cultural approach that informs all policies
- Adverse Childhood experiences (ACEs): Traumatic or disruptive events that happen in childhood. The term springs from the CDC-Kaiser Permanente study of more than 17,000 subjects published in 1998 that looked at 10 categories of ACEs and their impact on subjects’ future health and success, including physical and emotional neglect; physical, verbal, and sexual abuse; parental abandonment; parent mental illness or drug use; an imprisoned family member; or parental death, among others.11
- Generational poverty: When two or more generations of a family have lived in poverty.
- Situational poverty: When poverty is triggered by an event, such as illness, divorce, long-term unemployment, etc.
- Toxic stress: A type of stress that stems from prolonged exposure to elevated levels of the hormone cortisol – which can rise during times of fear, crisis, and grief – and has been linked to cognitive development and health challenges.
- Trauma informed: A nationwide movement to educate school districts, health care systems, and employers about the effects of ACEs and implement strategies to mitigate them.
- Trauma resilient: The capacity at an individual or community level to cope with stress, overcome adversity and thrive despite (and perhaps even because of) life challenges.