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Walla Walla Valley PACEs Connection (WA)

Each Piece of the Puzzle Matters: Meet Leslie Sweetwood


All 350 puzzles had been packaged, labeled, and were ready to be given away as gifts and an activity for conference goers. Teri Barila of CRI and her daughter Whitney had spent hours putting everything together when they noticed- the dog. And a puzzle piece in his mouth. Half-chewed. Discouraged, they looked over at the pile of boxes as Whitney muttered, “are we going to have to open every one of those?”

Without knowing which puzzle was missing a piece, Teri had to get creative. Another game, yes. A grand prize winner. The puzzles would be distributed as normal to conference attendees, and if one person received the partial puzzle and could describe which piece was missing, they’d win. Thus Teri and Whitney packed everything up, and off they all went to the conference, the lone incomplete puzzle among them.


Thrilled to be at the 2018 Beyond Paper Tigers (BPT) Conference, Leslie Sweetwood was listening to the puzzle announcement, wondering if she could possibly be the winner. She was missing a piece, but then again, she had also dumped the contents of her backpack all over the floor, under her table. Her coworker had jokingly grumbled to her, “I can’t take you anywhere!” as Leslie spilled cookie crumbs, pens, and pencils everywhere. “I am missing a piece of the puzzle, but I don’t know, maybe it’s just me being me,” Leslie laughed at herself.

Laughter, she believes, is an important coping mechanism. Leslie had arrived at this conference eager to learn and have fun, yet widely experienced with ACEs and trauma. She came from Dayton, WA, where she had moved after leaving an abusive husband. “I was not able to know the full extent of how to protect my children,” she mentions as she reflects on her own ACEs and traumas.

Leslie’s son passed away unexpectedly this fall, having suffered from addiction. “He was a victim of extreme ACEs. I found him, in his apartment,” she recalls quietly. “I can be grateful that he was warm, fed, clothed, and he was at peace. But he still stopped breathing.”


Reflecting on her son, Leslie comments that “it’s hard, but I’m not the only one out there. [ACEs are] an epidemic. I did the best I could with my son. Can something good come from this? I hope so.”

Thus she has recently gotten a job in public health, teaching cooking classes in schools, to do as much as she can for this cause. Her son was a cook, and sometimes it is painful for her to be reminded of him in her work. Yet Leslie loves cooking as a way of bringing people together. “I’ll never get over this [loss], but I just hope I can use this pain to prevent or educate.”

Discombobulated from spilling her bag, from the busyness of her life, Leslie was finally able to approach Teri and describe the missing puzzle piece. It took a few tries; at first, she accidentally described the adjacent pieces. But as a result, she wasn’t announced as the winner in front of the conference attendees. She jokes that she probably would have tripped and embarrassed herself.

Regardless, Leslie was simply content to be learning and involved in this movement. Her story emphasizes the way each journey of resilience fits together, forming a community. Each individual is part of the solution to ACEs. Ultimately, “we’re vessels and we can be used to help,” Leslie says, with a lilt in her voice. “I just happened to get the missing puzzle, and my coworker knows I’m a klutz and she’s right, but I like to think there’s a reason for all of this. I guess we’ll just see how the puzzle falls together.”


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