From Trauma to Resilience — Traveling Lightly into High Poverty Schools

Contributed by AOC Leadership Team Member, Donald Cowles – Leader at Richmond Hill and Micah Initiative; Member, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Richmond

resilienceThis year, in Richmond, VA, science is catching up to Jesus’ 2,000-year-old teachings!

Volunteers in Richmond Public Schools are being trained to understand trauma and to build resilience in students, classrooms, schools and communities.

This new instruction is prompted by brain research, exploring how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) affect brain development and can lead to serious physical, mental and emotional issues.* Brain research is also showing how caring, personal relationships can build resilience and restore traumatized people to wholeness.**

In his time, Jesus modeled this miraculous practice.  Fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, soldiers, the blind, the sick—all sorts and conditions of people traumatized by political oppression, economic exploitation and religious persecution—discovered in Jesus God’s uncompromising love.  In early Christ-centered communities, they learned to care for one another.

This transformative work lies at the heart of faith communities that partner with high-poverty schools.

Over the past 10 years, through my church-school partnership, I have mentored a student and his family and have learned firsthand about ACEs and their impact. It is devastating.

My mentee and his family live within one of the largest concentrations of poverty on the East Coast.  Their public school “pipeline”—from elementary to middle to high school—has over 95% of students living in poverty.

While, on the ACEs scale, I might have had 3 adverse childhood experiences in my first 18 years, my mentee and his peers experience ACEs weekly, if not daily—neighborhood killings; parents being shot by stray bullets; abuse from police or landlords; arrest and incarceration of family members; physical or emotional bullying; loss of phone services; bed bug infestations; physical illnesses; and family members with mental illness or substance abuse.  Their parents, who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), struggle to teach their children emotional and physical resilience.

For high-poverty schools, the consequences of this toxic stress include incomplete homework assignments, missed school days, disruptive classroom behaviors, increased suspensions, less overall learning and lower performance on standardized tests.

Faith communities that follow Jesus into neighborhood schools offer the caring, personal relationships that can remind students that they are loved, demonstrate alternative behaviors, and build emotional resilience.  Whether mentoring students; tutoring in reading or math; or assisting in classrooms, after-school programs and summer camps, these relationships mitigate the effects of ACEs.

Motivated by their faith, and armed with this new brain research, faith communities are also confronting the social justice implications of concentrated poverty. They are advocating for more early childhood care, mixed income neighborhoods, smaller class sizes, extra school resource personnel, greater socio-economic school integration, more out-of-school programs and longer school years with more time daily for interactive play.

In Richmond, trauma and resilience training is equipping faith communities and their volunteers to follow Jesus more effectively into the neighborhood and into the halls of justice.

* Click to see CDC Brain Research Focused on Adverse Childhood Experiences

** Click to see research focused on relationships and resilience.

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