Byron Hall mentors adolescent parents for the Community Enrichment Organization, a nonprofit in Tarboro, NC, which partners with a program that supports to keep adolescent parents in school. One of the parents he mentors is 13 years old.
At the age of 17, Hall was an adolescent parent himself, growing up with a single parent in the Bronx, NY, then an African American community where drug-dealing and prostitution were common. For the counselor, helping these young men and women, who are mostly African American and Latinx, is a calling that connects him to his past experiences and also helps him parent his own seven children.
Hall learned about the science of adverse childhood experiences three years ago in a two-day training offered by the Rural Opportunity Institute (ROI). The organization was founded by two Teach for America alums trained in human-centered design at IDEO and Frog in Silicon Valley.
Vichi Jagannathan and Seth Saeugling started ROI in 2017 to provide free trauma training to leaders throughout Eastern North Carolina, where they had previously taught and developed deep relationships with the people and culture in this part of the country. Their two-day training program, Reconnect for Resilience organized by Resources for Resilience, helps educators and counselors identify behaviors caused by ACEs and develop tools to help people, especially children, overcome their effects.
ACEs comes from the Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACE Study), first published in 1998 and comprising more than 70 research papers published over the following 15 years. The research is based on a survey of more than 17,000 adults and was led by Drs. Robert Anda and Vincent Felitti. The study linked 10 types of childhood adversity — such as living with a parent who is mentally ill, has abused alcohol or is emotionally abusive — to the adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. 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 ACE surveys — the epidemiology of childhood adversity — is one of five parts of ACEs science, which also includes how toxic stress from ACEs affects children’s brains, the short- and long-term health effects of toxic stress, the epigenetics of toxic stress (how it’s 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.
The Community Enrichment Organization was founded 27 years ago to serve the communities of Edgecombe and Nash counties in North Carolina, and Hall has been working with them for the past two years. Currently, Hall has 13 male and female teen parents he’s counseling, and he says ACEs is an important part of the resilience training. When asked about his own ACE score, Hall laughs and says, “It’s an 11 or 12.”
“When I took my ACEs score, it really opened my eyes,” he adds. During the training at ROI, he learned how to do a rapid reset when he’s feeling stressed. Instead of beating one of his children when he gets angry, which he said would be repeating what his mother did to him, he decided he wanted his daughter to be open to him, rather than closed.
Instead of reacting without thinking, he learned how to use a breathing technique. He breathes in and out 15 to 20 times to reset his reaction so that he can provide a thoughtful response. As a result, he is able to engage with his daughter in a positive way.
“It has made me a better person. I was taking the stresses of my day at work home and I didn’t want to beat her for things that were going on at my job,” he says.
When Hall was growing up, his father, a drug dealer, was absent, so his mother was on her own. She had her son when she was 17 – herself an adolescent parent – and he ended up fathering a child with his girlfriend when he was 17 as well.
Early on, Byron decided he didn’t want to be “a dope boy” because he would end up in jail like many of his family and friends. Instead, he decided he wanted to be a “hope boy,” to have children and become a good parent.
He graduated from Samuel Gompers Vocational High School in the Bronx and then went to community college, where he aimed to major in early childhood education so he could become a teacher’s assistant and substitute teacher. But in only the second semester of his first year, he had to drop out because his mother, who has diabetes, became completely blind and he needed to take care of her.
While supporting his mother, he began to volunteer in the community as a mentor to young men and boys, many of whom didn’t have fathers and didn’t know about hygiene and other life basics that fathers usually teach their sons. “The kids liked me and looked up to me because I had grown up with their family members, but I had chosen to not be a criminal,” he says.
Hall and his girlfriend married and had two more children before they divorced. He has been with his current partner for over a decade; they have four children, including four-year-old twins. He has continued to parent the children from his first marriage.
With the adolescent parents he counsels now, he asks them first what they want to know and then gives them the tools they need or think they need. He might teach them about WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children), a short-term federal program for low-income women and infants to help get healthy food to add to their diets, and child support laws. He also involves their own parents, but only if the teens ask him to.
Having recently completed a four-day training in resilience practices for ACEs, Byron is determined to keep supporting his students. He rates the program’s success by the fact that his students — he has a caseload of 13, but has had more than 20 at one time — are not falling into the criminal justice system. He often stays in close touch with his students until their second year of college or until they’re in the workforce.
“They call me every day to let me know what’s going on, or they use Facebook or WhatsApp or sit with me because they know that will keep them out of trouble,” he says.
As for his own four kids now still at home, the 43-year-old father says, “My kids think I’m crazy because I work for a nonprofit instead of a factory, where I could make more money.” But he says he gets more satisfaction than money could bring to “seeing somebody else advance in life.”