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Elizabeth Smith knits together families and communities through her own healing journey


(l to r) Elizabeth Smith and Peacetown board of directors: David, Amitiel, Jim aka Mr. Music, and Jasmine.

Only eight years ago, Elizabeth Smith was experiencing severe chronic stress. Raising a young son on her own, she was employed as a technician at a county hospital in Northern California that had downsized staff and increased her workload, as well that of other staff. She was helping to raise the morale of her fellow workers and served as a liaison between staff and the administration, when she herself had to seek medical treatment from the stress.

After being overmedicated by her physicians — which by itself triggered stressful side-effects — and desperate for relief, she attempted to take her life.

Fortunately, she didn’t succeed.

With the help of a friend, she ended up in the hospital and then went into therapy, where she discovered the basics of the science of childhood adversity and realized that “what I went through wasn’t my fault.”

Leaving her job, Smith rebuilt her life as her own advocate for healing through support from her family, friends, community, and most importantly, by training in yoga, an ancient healing practice. Yoga led her to the realization that she could help her own children — and others as well — by providing them with tools to support them during stress. She earned a certificate as a trainer for children’s yoga, joined a large international organization, and within a few years had built a successful business.

Understanding trauma

Smith grew up in a family of evangelical Christians, where she was surrounded by music. Her mother played the piano and the organ; her two brothers played instruments; and Smith sang in the church choir. However, the negative aspects of being isolated from the outside world in a strict evangelical community and controlled by adults through fear led to her having an ACE score of 8.

The term adverse childhood experiences comes from the landmark CDC/Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study of more than 17,000 adults, which linked 10 types of childhood trauma to the adult onset of chronic diseases, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. The study found that ACEs are remarkably common — most people have at least one. People who have four or more different types of ACEs — about 12 percent of the general population, but more in communities with people of color who are poor — have a 1,200 percent higher risk of attempting suicide and a 700 percent higher risk of becoming an alcoholic, compared with people who have no ACEs. Many other types of ACEs—including racism, bullying, a father being abused, and community violence—have been added to subsequent ACE surveys. (ACEs Science 101; Got Your ACE/Resilience Score?)

The epidemiology of childhood adversity is one of five parts of ACEs science. The other parts include how toxic stress from ACEs affects children’s brains, the short- and long-term health effects of toxic stress, how toxic stress is passed on from generation to generation, and research on resilience, which includes how individuals, organizations, systems and communities can integrate ACEs science to solve our most intractable problems.

Protective factors

In 2014, while searching online to understand the science behind trauma and the ways to help people heal, Smith came across the Strengthening Families framework, which focuses on five protective factors that can result in positive outcomes for young children and their families, while reducing child abuse and neglect. These factors are social connections, parental resilience, knowledge of parenting and child development, concrete support in times of need, and social and emotional competence of children.

The Protective Factors Framework (PFF) offers a two-day training certification program, and Smith signed up. But she not only learned about the program; she embraced it and became a certified trainer. Over the years, she has become a model practitioner and advocate of PFF as well as an innovator in the ways the framework can be adapted to fit different communities.

In 2018, she and her husband and two children moved from her hometown of Yuba City, California, where she had already offered families PFF workshops and programming, to Sebastopol, about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco.

“My heart felt this calling to Sebastopol,” she explains. “You could feel this energy shift in Sebastopol. My husband and I are both self-employed and our businesses were extremely successful,” so they took a leap of faith and moved.

Sebastopol, a city of 50,000, is most famous for its Gravenstein apple orchards. With its wide-open fields surrounded by rolling hills, the city still has a country feel and hosts an annual Apple Blossom Festival. But in the past several years, the community has suffered from fires, floods and now the coronavirus. Like many cities, its public schools have been closed this year and offer remote learning.

Helping everyone heal

Bringing people together has always been one of Smith’s strengths. “With this community,” she says, “it was a healing journey for me. I was able to use my skills, pull what I needed from the community to grow and cultivate positive social connections, and share that with the community through my need to build and create.”

After the move, Smith immediately began to attend meetings organized for children, families, and the community to discover what was available and how she could best contribute. She decided she wanted to integrate PFF into the Sebastopol community.

“There are so many different resources available,” she explains. “I could envision how simple it would be to use the Protective Factors Framework in a creative way to prevent, heal, and treat ACEs.”

One potential collaborator was Peacetown, a nonprofit that organizes free weekly outdoor concerts during the summer months. Smith brought her 3-year old daughter to the concerts, which drew from 1,000 to 1,500 people. But when her daughter got bored, her mother realized there was a need for a children’s area. She asked Peacetown if she could start a Family Village, which she did. Every week, a different organization, such as First 5 and Recology, participated, connecting to families and offering their resources.

“My intention,” Smith says, “was to take the Family Village concept to create a template and show other communities it can be done. You can integrate communities to do the same things by using resources that are already available.”

Working around COVID-19

Then came COVID-19. No more summer concerts, so Smith decided to improvise. Last Easter, she partnered with Peacetown and other local organizations, including the local Soroptimist chapter and a local toy store, Toyworks, to provide Easter Egg Hunt “To Go” Bags to hand out to 150 families. Each bag contained gift certificates and information about local resources for families during the pandemic.

Peacetown created weekly virtual concerts, which included Family Village video segments that Smith created. Some even featured her two children, Hunter, by then 16, and Lucy, 6. Hunter, who has also suffered from ACEs, “speaks about the benefits of integrating young people into the community.” His mom talks about the power of music and art to heal, the importance of PFF in communities, resiliency, and other topics related to children and families.

On these virtual concert videos, she says, “I don’t discuss ACEs because it’s a heavy topic for the general public without offering support and services to prevent, heal, and treat them.” However, in the videos she integrates much ACEs information in a way that is easy to digest.

Peace Bags

At some point, Smith realized she needed more than just a virtual connection. Ever the innovator, she created Peace Bags. With the support of local organizations, every week during the summer, she set up a table in front of Toyworks and gave away 100 bags. Each bag contained information on resources for children and families. And with her passion for music as a healing art, loudspeakers next to the table streamed the music of whatever bands were originally scheduled to play that week at Peacetown’s summer concert.

“We had families that shared their immense gratitude that they had something positive to look forward to, felt supported by community, and connected them to community,” she says.

Someone saw Smith’s post about Peace Bags on Facebook and replicated the concept in Los Angeles County. “They were giving away food and even more resources,” says Smith. “Now they are applying for grants to continue this work.”

She makes a difference

For now, Smith teaches yoga and engages in self-regulation, coping skills, and mindfulness activities with 50 elementary school children — including many at-risk — who are learning in private cohorts. In addition, she offers virtual PFF certification training and also creates community events that meet people where they are. This work is most often unpaid, as Smith sees her community organizing work as part of her continued healing journey.

She also serves as a trustee at her daughter’s school; authored a chapter in a compilation book about healing holistically; founded Project Whole Child; founded and is president of a Soroptimist group in West Sonoma County supporting women; serves as a board member for Peacetown; is a Parent Leader for Parent Voices Sonoma; and has taken on the role of community manager for Sonoma County ACEs Connection.

It’s no surprise then that last month she was recognized by her local city council as one of the “Locals who make a difference.” Her photo was displayed downtown on more than 20 flags along Main Street and she received a city proclamation at a Sebastopol City Council meeting.

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