Wellness in Oxford County: Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

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REACHING TEENS — Members of the Oxford County Wellness Collaborative, along with staff of RSU 10, participate in the Reaching Teens Institute last November to learn about a tool kit to reach teens who are dealing with traumatic experiences.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a four-part series exploring the four initiatives the Oxford County Wellness Collaborative has partnered with to combat the isolation, disconnection and lack of self-worth – felt by many residents across the county – by improving health. 

NORWAY — The Oxford County Wellness Collaborative has partnered with RSU 10 – and will eventually partner with other school districts – to combat Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) to help students overcome trauma so they can live healthier lives.

The Wellness Collaborative’s Community Safety Workgroup took the lead on this initiative and forged a partnership with RSU 10 last year, which locally includes the towns of Buckfield, Sumner and Hartford. Kim Preble, executive director of the United Way of Oxford County and member of the workgroup, said the workgroup “is focused on interpersonal violence, sexual violence, child abuse – anything that really relates to safety in our community.”

ACEs 

ACEs can be a number of negative experiences in a child’s life and are more common than most people realize, according to Preble.

“Nearly two-thirds of all adults have an ACE score of at least one,” she said, which means they had at least one adverse childhood experience. “ACEs are common and affect individuals across all religions, income levels, races, etc.”

She referred to the 1995-97 ACE study conducted by Vincent Felitti of Kaiser Permanente and Robert Anda of the Centers for Disease Control that included more than 17,000 people and examined childhood abuse and neglect and their effects on health and well-being later in life.

ACEs include:

  • Abuse: emotional, physical and sexual.
  • Household challenges: parent(s) treated violently, substance abuse, mental illness, parental separation or divorce, criminal household member.
  • Neglect: emotional and physical.

“When that ACE study was done, all the different things that were listed as a traumatic event, some of them were things that were maybe unavoidable like a death of a loved one or parent,” Preble said.

The definition of ACEs has expanded since the study was completed roughly 20 years ago. ACEs can now include extreme poverty, racism, terrorism and natural disasters.

“Look at Hurricane Katrina [with kids] being displaced from their homes,” Preble said. “Those type of things were not included on the original study but do have an impact.”

The study also showed links between ACEs and health problems later in life.

“An individual who has a lot of traumatic experiences in their childhood, there is a connection between heart disease, substance use disorder, … chronic disease [and/or] mental illness,” she added. “The research has also showed … all it takes is just one stable adult figure in a child’s life to love them unconditionally, to help be there for them – that can drastically reduce the impact of traumatic experiences.”

‘Paper Tigers’

Last year the workgroup began showing “Paper Tigers” at schools around Oxford County.

“That documentary has a focus on [what] one high school out in Washington state is doing to help respond to kids who have really traumatic events in their lives and how that relates to them as a student,” Preble said. “That really catapulted to the big focus around ACEs [and] really trying to focus on poor health outcomes in Oxford County.”

Brendan Schauffler, the network facilitator for the Wellness Collaborative, said the documentary showed kids dealing with substance abuse disorders and abuse-filled relationships – both their own and their parents and guardians – along with  violence and instability, which includes wondering where their next meal will come from and where they’ll sleep.

With each showing, a conversation followed asking viewers if these stories seemed familiar.

“The answer was always yes. Everybody in the room always knew somebody who resembled somebody in the film,” Schauffler said.

Schools and social services officials reported they “see those kids every day.”

Another showing was held Tuesday, March 28, at Mountain Valley High School in Rumford and more showings will be planned for other locations soon. Visit the Wellness Collaborative’s Facebook page for showings info at www.facebook.com/oxfordcwc.

Resiliency

So how does one combat ACEs, which can be a myriad of things to so many people depending on their circumstances?

For Preble and Schauffler, it is all about building resiliency.

“Our vision is to have systems in place. There are going to be traumatic events that happen. We can’t stop everything,” Preble said. “We want to build a county and a climate [where] if a child is going through a traumatic event, they have easy access to treatment.”

This includes school staff recognizing if a child or teen has an outburst in class that the student is going through something. Other resources include having healthy outlets for students, including community support groups where students can feel connected to their neighbors, Schauffler said.

Part of resiliency is building up compassionate responses for those dealing with ACEs in the school system.

“It can be little things that become common place – moving from mentally, ‘Let me solve the problem for this kid,’ to ‘Let me understand what this person is going through,’ which is really difficult because we’re problem solvers by nature,” he said. This includes having conversations get to the root of the negative behavior.

Preble said schools should look at different discipline models other than detention and suspension for kids who show up late, get into fights, do not turn in homework and the like.

“[It’s] taking a different approach. This kid is going through something. What can we do to support that child instead of suspending them?” she asked. “In ‘Paper Tigers,’ the school provides … in-school suspensions instead of taking the kid out [of school]. It’s keeping the kid connected to the school community, which really keeps them connected to a lot of resources, too.”

RSU 10

A Reaching Teens Institute was held in November in Orono and included members of the Wellness Collaborative and RSU 10, where they learned to use a tool kit that is designed specifically for high schoolers who are going through traumatic events.

WONDER — Students and staff at Mountain Valley Middle School in Mexico, along with members of the Oxford County Wellness Collaborative, held Wonder Day last spring, which was a day to focus on caring and making compassionate connections with others as way to overcome Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

“RSU 10 is starting to implement some strategies in their schools [on] how they can be more trauma informed in their school system,” Preble said. “Buckfield High [School is] starting a group for kids to sit and talk about stressors … so they have a safe space to just talk about things that are going on in their lives.”

Mountain Valley Middle School in Mexico held a resiliency day last year – called Wonder Day – which was named after the book the school read, “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio. The book is about Auggie, a fifth-grader with a facial deformity who is entering main stream school for the first time.

“We chose ‘Wonder’ because it has many powerful themes which we knew would inspire our students to recognize that they have the ability to make positive choices and overcome challenges in their own lives,” said Lisa Drapeau, the GEAR UP Coordinator at the middle school, in an email. “A powerful quote from the book that we focused on was, ‘When given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.’ This theme supports our MVMS Code of Conduct which is to ‘Be Respectful, Act Responsibly, and Do What is Right, so that Mountain Valley Middle School is A Safe Place Where All Students Can Learn.’”

Wellness Collaborative officials held workshops with students and staff, according to Drapeau, and the keynote speaker was Olivia Sanborn, who has Pfeiffer Syndrome, which is a genetic disorder where skull bones are fused prematurely.

“Olivia shared her triumphs and challenges and personally connected with many students at MVMS,” Drapeau said, adding Sanborn faced some of the same challenges as Auggie in ‘Wonder.’

Another event is scheduled for sometime in May for RSU 10, which will focus on resiliency. The school will read “Bluefish,” by Pat Shmatz.

Schauffler said the work being done in RSU 10 to build a trauma-informed climate includes expanding on the tool kit with local best practices, contact information, resources and support systems.

“It is meant to be the first step of work that will extend to other districts in the county. As things roll out there, we will get a better sense of how it’s working,” he said about RSU 10. He added SAD 44 has expressed interest in participating and the plan is to eventually “roll it out to all six districts in the County.”

Participation

There are a couple of ways the Oxford County community can get involved with combating ACEs. The first is to join the Community Safety Workgroup, which meets from 3 to 5 p.m. the first Wednesday of every month. On the odd months, meetings are held at the Rumford Public Library. On even months, meetings are held at the Healthy Oxford Hills office in Norway, but currently a new venue is being sought as the group is outgrowing that space.

Another way is to host a “Paper Tigers” showing.

The third is a goal of the workgroup to host ACEs and resiliency training in the workplace.

“If you’re experience ACEs as a child, it may have an impact on you as an adult. Even though a lot of what we’ve been focusing on is responding to kids, we still want to have that connection in adult life,” Preble said, noting the training can help employers figure out “why they’re not having the most effective or efficient workforce [and] what can be behind that.”

To get involved with any of these efforts, contact Preble at kpreble@uwoxfordcounty.org or 743-5833.

eplace@sunmediagroup.net 

What is the Wellness Collaborative?

The Oxford County Wellness Collaborative (OCWC) is one of 11 Maine communities selected to implement projects in the Maine Health Access Foundation’s (MeHAF) Healthy Community grant initiative. MeHAF seeks to improve health and promote collaborative, locally led efforts that can help transform communities to enable people to live healthier lives.

The Wellness Collaborative previously received MeHAF grants to pull together people across the Oxford County to identify priority health issues that the community would like to address, and to create a plan to address those health issues. The process led to a large group gathering where community members from all walks of life talked about the challenges at the root of the County not being as healthy as they would like.

The root cause unanimously chosen as a place to start to make change was isolation, disconnection and not feeling valued. Put another way, too many people in Oxford County aren’t connected with the people and resources that they need, and don’t have a sense of their worth. A series of Community Health Needs Assessment forums followed, where the priority health issues of obesity and substance use disorder were named.

Current MeHAF funding supports the work of four partners chosen by OCWC members to address the chosen health issues: the Western Maine Addiction Recovery Initiative, 5210 Let’s Go! Oxford County, Alan Day Community Garden, and the Community Safety Workgroup’s subcommittee on Adverse Childhood Experiences & Resilience.