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Walla Walla - Where Resilience Trumps ACEs

Like the sweet onions for which Walla Walla is famous, the story of this community's 10+ years of  investment in becoming a Trauma-Informed Community has many layers.

Teri Barila is the person widely recognized as the initial champion and catalyst for Walla Walla's trauma informed approach, after she attended a conference in 2007 where Rob Anda, one of the original authors of the ACEs study, challenged attendees to take the information he had presented about ACEs and "get something started in your local community."

I had the privilege of meeting and talking with Teri Barila, as well as several members of Walla Walla's CRI Team:

  • Mike Bates, Director of the Walla Walla County Corrections Department,
  • Becky Turner, ED of the Successful Transition and Reentry (STAR) Project,
  • Tony McGuire, instructor for the Building Maintenance Technology program taught inside the Washington State Penitentiary, and
  • Jeff Gwinn, supervisor for the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program

I came away from our conversation deeply moved and greatly inspired.

In the decade since starting this work in earnest, Teri told me, "Two central goals have withstood the test of time:

  1. create a community that is conversant in ACEs, brain science, and resilience; and
  2. INTEGRATE that knowledge and the related research into changing the practices in our schools, human services organizations, businesses, justice systems, healthcare systems, and elsewhere to better respond to the 'bad things that happen to good people.'"

From the beginning, however, Teri says, "we thought it would be important to focus on the hopefulness of RESILIENCE, not the negative outcomes and 'shame and blame' of the ACEs." Hence the names of the cross-sector, community coalition they formed (Children's Resilience Initiative, or CRI) and their website:

From the beginning, they've operated at multiple layers and levels:

  • MEET 1:1 WITH STAKEHOLDERS AND POTENTIAL PARTNERS: Teri came to this effort with a strong background in community organizing and coalition-building. So she and Mark Brown, a co-facilitator she engaged from the beginning, developed a list of individuals and organizations who could be key stakeholders and partners in the effort to make Walla Walla a trauma-informed community. Then, they met with them one by one to share information about ACEs, brain and resilience research, the issues they saw in Walla Walla related to ACEs, and their goal of creating "a community conversant in ACEs and resilience." At these meetings, they answered questions, addressed resistance and doubts, and refined their core message.
  • FORM AN INCLUSIVE CROSS-SECTOR TEAM: After the 1:1 meetings, they put together a team of interested stakeholders and partners, and made sure to include parent representatives.
  • CRAFT A CHARTER PLAN: The CRI team created a Charter Plan mapping out their vision, goals, and an elevator pitch that team members could use to engage additional partners, about how the entire Walla Walla community could benefit from understanding ACEs and resilience, and why it was important to use that knowledge to change practices, policies, and systems in the community.
  • SECURE ORGANIZATIONAL COMMITMENTS FROM COALITION PARTNERS: They crafted an MOU for partner organizations to sign, to commit that they would send staff to training about ACEs, brain science and resilience; and that they would form internal agency "core teams" of staff who would then evaluate and revise their agency's internal policies, practices and programs to make them "trauma-informed."
  • DEVELOP AND PROVIDE TRAINING: They pulled together all of the resources and research they could find and created a 3-hour basic training and started offering it to local nonprofit agencies, businesses, community and civic groups, schools, churches, and governmental departments (including police and sheriff's departments, the local prison, juvenile justice and others). They realized early on that the information about ACEs could feel 'shaming and blaming' to parents, so they have been very intentional about how this is presented, and have involved numerous parents to help develop the materials and craft the message. Periodically, they also brought in outside experts to give presentations, provide trainings, and help "deliver the message."
  • MEET REGULARLY/DISCUSS INTEGRATION: The CRI team meets monthly to discuss how each partner organization is integrating the knowledge about trauma and resilience into their day to day work, and to identify opportunities for further collaboration and expansion. The "integration" discussion at every meeting has been transformational, as it helps to document the successes of a trauma-informed approach and gives everyone additional ideas to try in their own organizations. (NOTE: In a future blog post, I'll share information from Mike Bates, Becky Turner, Tony McGuire, and Jeff Gwinn about some of the specific things they've done in each of their organizations and programs to integrate the knowledge about ACEs and resilience into practice.)
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  • SECURE HIGH LEVEL GOVERNMENT & INSTITUTIONAL SUPPORT: For one of their early trainings where they brought in an outside expert, John Medina, for a half-day forum on ACEs and brain science, the Walla Walla School Board voted unanimously to close the schools for the day so that all school district employees could attend. As a result, they had attendance of 1200 people at that training.  In addition, they approached the Walla Walla City Council and requested that they declare the month of October "Resilience Month." This has now become an annual proclamation and provides a terrific opportunity to draw additional attention to the topic at the beginning of every school year.

Teri cites several other keys to success in this work:

  • MULTIPLE EXPOSURES: they realized early on that, in order to really "get it," most people would need to be exposed to the information about ACEs, trauma, brain science and resilience multiple times, through multiple channels, from multiple experts, in multiple locations and multiple formats (trainings, flyers, bulletins, PSA's, posters, games, social media, etc). They've held formal events like classroom trainings, speakers events, conferences, and film screenings - and, yes, they've shown the films "Paper Tigers" and "Resilience" here too, because, as Teri explains, "even though the films are about our community, not everyone here knew our own story!".

They have also used informal approaches, like quick surveys of shoppers at the community's Saturday Farmer's Market and the community 4th of July celebration to gauge what people know about ACEs and resilience, providing basic information about developing resilience to new parents at the local hospital and at parent-teacher conferences at the local schools, an art show related to resilience, and a traveling signboard that appears at different places around town.

They also developed a whole series of games and tools that they now sell on their website.  (note: I bought a copy of everything they've created and am bringing it all back to Lancaster! Good thing I packed an extra empty duffel bag!)

  • MEASUREMENT: They have conducted multiple surveys, focus groups and other measures to assess overall awareness and understanding of ACEs, resilience and related topics in the community at large. In addition, individual agencies have gathered their own internal data on the results of taking a trauma-informed approach. T
  • ADJUST WHEN NEEDED:  Though their initial focus was on addressing ACEs and building resilience for children and youth in the community, they have realized it is every bit as important to build adult capabilities as well (see next item). So, they are about to change the name of their initiative from "Children's Resilience Initiative" to "Community Resilience Initiative", to reflect this. They have made other adjustments along the way, as needed, listening carefully and with humility to coalition partners, parents, youth and others.
  • BUILD ADULT CAPABILITIES: They have come to understand how critical it is for all of the adults involved in the schools, human services agencies, parents and other adults to be in touch with their OWN "stuff" related to their experiences of trauma, and to have the necessary skills and abilities to be resilient themselves, before they can help children develop resilience. Teri highly recommends this 5 minute video overview from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child that addresses this topic.  In addition, here's specific information from Harvard about ways service providers, caregivers and other adults can build their own capabilities and help other adults do the same.
  • SUSTAINABILITY: Over the past several years, they have implemented a robust "train the trainer" initiative so they have an extensive cadre of people across many of the CRI partner agencies and in the community at large who can deliver the initial 3 hour trauma/ACES/resilience training. They have also created a "Speakers Bureau" of CRI team members who can help carry the message out to new audiences.

As inspiring as it was to hear from Teri, Mike, Becky, Tony and Jeff about the importance of this trauma-informed work from their adult perspectives, for me, the most moving testimonial about why it matters so deeply for our communities to understand ACEs and work to build resilience comes from several young men in Walla Walla's Jubilee Leadership Program sharing their own stories of hope and resilience after trauma in this incredibly touching video,


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