For Peter Buckley, program manager for the PACEs initiative, Southern Oregon Success (SORS), the “aha moment” around positive and adverse childhood experiences was more of an “aha month.”
In early March 2016, Buckley, a Democratic politician who had served as a member of the Oregon House of Representatives for 12 years, began managing Southern Oregon Success. SORS is a regional, cross-sector collaborative focused on promoting lifelong health and academic success for children and families in Jackson and Josephine counties.
Buckley’s in-depth introduction to childhood adversity occurred when a colleague in SORS suggested he read psychiatrist Bruce Perry’s groundbreaking book, “The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog.” The book details the traumatic experiences of some of Perry’s young patients, discusses how trauma affects the brain and behavior, and how building trusting, lasting relationships helps traumatized children heal.
“It just knocked my socks off!” Buckley says. “I had no idea the extent of what trauma could be for a child. And I had no idea that there were these incredibly brilliant people who were studying the ways to kind of say, OK, that child has been traumatized. How do we revitalize that life? How do we come back?”
Then he read Ross Greene’s book “Lost at School,” about the utter failure of zero-tolerance discipline policies in schools. He says it blew his mind to learn about the possibilities of changing school environments to be sensitive to trauma.
And then in early April of that year, his entire world view was upended. That’s when he spent three days learning how to be a trainer in PACEs science education through the ACE Interface program developed by Dr. Robert Anda and Laura Porter. Anda is the co-lead investigator of the landmark CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study), and Porter is the former director of the groundbreaking Washington State Family Policy Council and the Office of ACE Partnerships in Washington State.
“It changed the way I look at everything!” Buckley recalls.
It was also a turning point for Southern Oregon Success. SORS sent around 7 volunteers along with Buckley to the ACE Interface training, which includes curriculum about neurobiology, epigenetics, ACEs and resilience. Since that time the organization has offered more than 450 trainings about ACEs and resilience to more than 15,000 people. Additional workshops on self-regulation and resilience have reached more than 1,100 people.
As a result of the training, there now is a common language and understanding across all sectors in Jackson and Josephine counties about the root causes of the challenges children face as well as approaches to address them, says Buckley.
The training helped Buckley understand that the approach to raising kids using rewards and punishment was misguided. “The fact that the science backs compassion just thrilled the heck out of me,” he says. He was referring to research showing that one caring adult in a child’s life can offset the neurobiological impact of unpredictable stress that a child may experience in their homes or communities. (See, for example, this study in the Journal of Child and Youth Development, which highlights the importance of bonds between a young person and one caring adult for building resilience.)
They needed to start earlier
When he arrived at SORS, volunteers had already built partnerships among schools and health care entities to help pave the way for students from as early as middle school to help guide them into specific classes that would lead them into a chosen career path.
“If a student might be interested in becoming a nurse, counselors identify the health and science classes that would be the best introductions to nursing, and the hospitals would offer the chance for students to shadow a nurse,” explains Buckley. But they realized they needed to reach children and families much earlier to provide the social and emotional supports that prepare children for kindergarten.
The question was how were they going to do that? That’s when they brought in CoCreative, an organization based in Washington D.C. that helps cross-sector collaboratives identify solutions to complicated challenges.
“We were really struggling because we had a traditional nonprofit model, a board of 22 people and one staff member, and I was spending much of my time just trying to keep people aligned on the board,” Buckley says. The group had also spent a year writing their charter.
CoCreative interviewed Buckley and all of the members of SORS’s board in May 2019 and told them that the nonprofit model they were using, with most decisions made by the board, was causing the organization to be bogged down in governance issues.
The CoCreative team put it this way, says Buckley: “People vote with their feet. If the work is engaging, they stick with the work. They don't stick with the work because you appointed somebody to a board or a steering committee. They only stick with the work if it means something.”
SORS was presented with the choice of continuing along the same path or going an entirely different way. “And by noon of the first day of the strategy meeting, the steering committee had voted itself out of existence,” Buckley says.
A new way forward
That’s when the group doubled down to figure out the way forward with guidance from CoCreative’s Heather Equinoss. “Her basic push was to identify five or six people that have the community's trust," he says, "someone from education, health care, early childhood, the different sectors. Let them set goals that encapsulate what you guys have been working on for all of these years, and then offer it out to the community. That will accelerate the work.”
The group of six came up with the overarching goal that by 2025, all parents and caregivers will have the knowledge, skills, connections, and support needed so kids can enter kindergarten ready to thrive, explains Buckley.
Once the goal was identified, it was shopped around to SORS’s core group of 68 different partner organizations, which include representatives from seven school districts, early childhood, mental health, health care, human services, workforce development and public safety in 12 hours of facilitated meetings in June 2020.
In those meetings, people were asked, “If this is the goal, how do we get there?” says Buckley. Out of those sessions they developed a network of 13 work groups focusing on different areas, including pre-school/kindergarten alignment, a family advisory council, early childhood supports, early childhood workforce development, and behavioral health. Each group then developed its own plans for moving forward.
For example, in southern Oregon, as is the case in many parts of the country, there’s a shortage of behavioral health specialists. One of the goals of the group working in that area is to expand training for peer support specialists. Similarly, there’s a shortage of early childcare workers. One of the goals there is to find ways to give those workers access to affordable health care.
To ensure that the big-picture goal resonated with everyone in the community, 44 people representing a variety of constituencies were asked if it made sense. This group included people who were experiencing homelessness, people who had recently secured permanent housing, people in recovery programs, early childhood educators, kindergarten teachers, single parents, grandparents raising grandkids, migrant workers, high school students, members of the LGTBQ community, and even the CEO of the area’s major employer.
There was a common denominator that all the interviewees identified as a barrier to progress: financial stress. As one high school student put it to Buckley, “Can we at least just make sure everyone has enough food? Is that too hard to do?’” The irony, says Buckley, is that they live in a rich agricultural area. “And yet, people are starving. Why is that? That was a powerful moment.”
Another overarching concern among the interviewees, he says, was the desire to build community. People said they had their own community that they were tight with, but they had a real concern that "we're losing that sense of overall community," he says, "and boy has that played out during COVID in a huge way."
In particular, residents of Jackson County have been hit hard with COVID, and there’s tremendous polarization between those in favor of and those opposing vaccines and mask mandates, with 30% of the residents opposed to vaccines and masks. “Health care workers have been threatened…school board meetings have gotten ugly here, as they have elsewhere,” Buckley says. “So that sense of community, that we're all in this together, is really strained.”
At a recent SORS family advisory council meeting, emotions were high on both sides of the vaccine issue.
One council member said she was “very frustrated about the [vaccine] mandates and thought it was a horrible idea,” says Buckley. Another council member who was a health care worker talked about what she was going through during the pandemic.
“A council member—a single mom of two kids—noted that the conversation was respectful," he says, "and said, ‘If we can depoliticize through relationships, maybe that’s the only path available to us. The more we know about how we can connect with each other and build resilience together, the more, hopefully, that will bring us together.”