Last Friday and Saturday the Greensville Memorial Foundation and the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation (VECF) hosted a free regionwide summit - Building Blocks of an Empowered Community: Resilient, Responsive Ready to Learn - to explore the profound impact of trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on a child’s ability to be successful in school and in life.

According to Ruth Frierson, project coordinator for VECF, the event, which was held at the Golden Leaf Commons in Emporia and included over 250 parents, child care providers, teachers, judicial systems, health care providers, social workers, local business leaders, elected officials and human-services organizations was a huge success. And she expressed the hope that this will also provide the impetus for further – and future – training and help in surrounding counties like Dinwiddie, Prince George, Sussex and Surry among others.

“Children who have suffered traumatic and toxic stress like growing up in poverty, having parents who are incarcerated or divorced, or having been exposed to either physical or sexual abuse – any of these constant and consistent things can cause toxic stress, the trauma that causes health issues,” Frierson said. “Through this kind of training, our region’s children will develop lifelong skills for success in school and the future workplace if the entire community is more resilient, responsive and ready to learn about the issues impacting a child’s life.”

“Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are defined as significant early traumas that can affect brain development and can lead to serious physical, mental and emotional issues if left unaddressed,” she continued. “We felt that it was important for us to bring this summit to the community to share strategies that can help families and children not only survive but thrive.  Building a resilient community is important to be able to be responsive to the needs of those who have experienced trauma and intentionally work to minimize triggers.”

Sessions held over the two days included multiple opportunities for attendees to learn more about what causes and how to deal with the adverse affects of trauma. On Friday, well-known peace advocate, author, poet, gang specialist and mental health advocate Jason Davis spoke on Reimagining Justice. The Family Engagement Specialist/ Crisis Intervention Specialist for Living Redemption Youth Opportunity Hub in Harlem, N.Y. used his own life experience – saying that had the ACES program been around when he was growing up, he would not now need to travel the world to educate society about the experiences of gang members and the consequences of communities that suffer from social isolation.

Later that afternoon, Isael Torres, a social justice champion from Utah, addressed the crowd on the topic of Culturally Relevant Teaching and the importance of offering educational justice for youth and the community. The founder of Utah Latinx Youth Symposium, a statewide program that creates mentoring pathways between high school students and young Latin professionals in Utah, centers his academic and professional focus on issues of social justice and equity within systems of education and community organization.

Panel discussions on community resiliency with Atif Qarni, Virginia Secretary of Education, and Chidi Uche, special assistant to the Virginia Secretary of Education with a focus on trauma-informed care and a presentation on brain architecture by John Richardson-Lauve, director of mental health and lead trauma and resilience educator with ChildSavers, rounded out the day.

Saturday sessions featured discussions by local parents and Richardson-Lauve on resiliency and solutions for supporting families, as well as a presentation on early childhood development by Yolanda Richey, M.Ed., a consultant and trainer in the field of infant and toddler mental health.

“Like many states across the country Virginia has recognized that trauma at a young age has an impact on a person’s development, health and their ability to learn and be successful in life,” Frierson said after the conference. “And building resilience has been recognized as an important investment for healthy communities and families. We did the summit in Emporia because a few years ago the VECF with the support of the  W.K.Kellogg Foundation invested in a two generation initiative to identify and address barriers that challenge a family’s ability to obtain self-sufficiency. And ACES is a wonderful tool we got from trainings done by John Richardson Lauve, who’s an expert in this in the state. Now this is something the state is very interested in.”

Frierson added, “I felt that we accomplished what we set out to do – to really highlight the contributions of parents and how valuable they are to the goals, because without the involvement of parents we are not going to be able to address poverty or other concerns. We wanted to introduce the ACES concept to the community and had about 250 people participate in it – a very diverse representation – and we really appreciate the response of the community. The summit was completely facilitated by parents in the community. They were part of the planning committee from the beginning and instrumental in putting this summit together.”

Trinity Harrison, who works at the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office, explained why she was a member of the summit’s planning team.

“I got involved because I have experienced trauma in my own life while growing up,” Harrison said, “and I know that our community doesn’t currently have a lot of resources and information on trauma. I want to be able to assist our deputies when we get calls related to trauma in families. Also, I want to help my two year old daughter learn how to handle traumatic situations such as bullying and do well in school. The summit is a great opportunity for our community to understand what adverse childhood experiences are and how to support those who are dealing with them.”

“I am most proud of that kind of participation,” Frierson said, “because the involvement of parents – having their voice represented - has the ability to change the trajectory of children’s lives. It matters that they have traumatic experiences, but what matters most is we provide them with the ability to develop resilience – build a solid foundation for children. It wasn’t professionals telling parents, ‘This is what you need to do.’ It was parents saying, ‘This is the support we need.’ And the community showed up. That’s what excited me. That the community and state leaders and the community invested together to insure that children are ready to learn. It’s not just a conversation on trauma and what happens to families, but it gives HOPE. Because regardless of the circumstance they were born into, there is hope.“

“And thanks to generous funding by The Greensville Memorial foundation and the Family Children’s Trust Fund of Virginia, and the Altria Group and in kind for B and B Consultants, Inc. and McDonald’s Corporation,” Frierson added, “we were able to provide free registration, breakfast both days, and lunch and snacks to attendees. Because we didn’t want the cost to keep anyone from participating.”

For questions or information about upcoming training email ruth@vecf.org or call 804-536-1033.