Guest Blog: Jane Stevens, ACEsTooHigh and ACEs Connection
Tarpon Springs, Florida, once known as the nation’s sponge-fishing capital, today boasts a new designation: the first city in the country to declare itself a trauma-informed community.
Being a trauma-informed community means that Tarpon Springs has made a commitment to engage people from all sectors—education, juvenile justice, faith, housing, healthcare, and business—in common goals. The first goal is to understand how personal adversity affects the community’s well being. The second is to institute resilience-building practices so that people, organizations, and systems no longer traumatize already traumatized people, and instead contribute to building a healthier community.
Beginnings: A Goal to Stop Violence
The journey officially began in February 2011, when the Tarpon Springs City Council voted to marshal the community to address and prevent childhood and adult trauma.
The results have been profound. Trauma-informed practices have been implemented in small and large ways in a variety of organizations, including an elementary school, and the local housing authority. The Pinellas County Department of Health recently decided to incorporate in its Community Health Improvement Plan a goal of providing trauma-informed information in all of its county health facilities.
“My belief is that trauma is universal,” says local artist Robin Saenger, who began the movement after she was elected vice-mayor of Tarpon Springs. “Everyone’s experienced trauma in one form or another, and usually does on a regular basis throughout the course of a lifetime; whether that stems from being in a car accident, witnessing domestic violence or having a loved one with substance abuse problems. And everyone is affected by the consequences of that trauma, including the cost of emergency health and social services, school dropout rates, violence, and absenteeism on the job.”
Saenger met with the Police Chief and City Manager to talk about what Tarpon Springs was doing right, and where it could use some help. They put together a list of 30 people they thought would be interested in the initiative, named Peace4Tarpon. This group included the Police Chief, the Mayor, the City Manager, directors of the Community Health Center, the Housing Authority, and the Sheriff Department’s Ex-Offender Program, and many community members.
For the last three years, the group has met regularly to move the Peace4Tarpon initiative ahead, inch-by-inch.
Early Adopters: Housing Authority and Schools
The biggest changes have occurred in a local housing authority and elementary school. Pat Weber, a community organizer and Executive Director of the Tarpon Springs Housing Authority, had already coached her staff to think about people as people instead of as problems. “They don’t keep their house messy because they want to have cockroaches,” she tells them. “There’s a reason for everything. In our housing authority, it’s trauma.”
The housing authority already had a long-time partnership with the local police department. Together, they had turned a former church into a community center for the “Cops ‘n Kids” program, which serves 75 children. An officer is assigned full-time to the center, and the housing authority provides staff to develop programs. The center is open after school until 6:30 p.m. and all day during the summer. “For the kids, this center and those people are like their family,” says Weber.
As a result of being involved with Peace4Tarpon, Weber says her agency is much more tenant-supportive.
Most of the children who attend Tarpon Springs Elementary School have family incomes close to the federal poverty level; many live in public housing nearby. The school began its trauma-informed approach by asking students and families what they needed. The answers were basic: uniforms, eye exams, food. Through Peace4Tarpon, the school now has a uniform bank. Kids receive regular hearing and eye exams, free eyeglasses, weekend snacks, meal assistance, and transportation to school events.
“The community knows that if kids are worried about things, they’re not going to be able to focus on learning,” says Wendy Sedlacek, chair of Peace4Tarpon’s children’s initiative subcommittee. When teachers participated in a poverty workshop, she said, “They examined the types of trauma that poverty can cause on multiple levels. Teachers were put together as a family, with people playing different roles. Every 15 minutes, something changed in their lives, and they had to figure out how to survive. It was very enlightening. They learned there are a lot of choices that people make that are traumatic, because there’s no other choice.”
During this school year, Peace4Tarpon community members, parents and school staff—all trained in community support—visited families twice in their homes. They asked questions such as, “Do you feel comfortable about the educational experience your child is receiving? Does your child need a desk? A mentor? In what other ways can we support you?”
Many other pieces of Peace4Tarpon
Peace4Tarpon has made a difference in other ways as well:
- After the Pinellas Ex-offender Re-entry Coalition screened participants in its support groups for Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), it changed the curriculum for the women’s groups to Seeking Safety, which specifically addresses trauma. The women learn information they can use daily, such as how to say no and how to create everyday boundaries.
- Judge Kimberly Todd is interested in having Peace4Tarpon provide assistance on developing community service diversion programs for youth offenders.
- Two Peace4Tarpon partners who are licensed mental health counselors participate in the Give an Hour program to provide free counseling for military veterans.
- Tarpon Springs was selected as a finalist in the 2014 All-American City Awards hosted by the National Civic League, partly based on the work of Peace4Tarpon.
Saenger points out that all accomplishments to date have been done without a large grant. In fact, she thinks a big pot of money—or a top-down countywide initiative—would have killed Peace4Tarpon. “You don’t throw too much fertilizer on a new plant,” she says. “And you have to grow this from the ground up.”
Word of Tarpon Springs’ work has spread. Walla Walla, WA, used Peace4Tarpon’s memorandum of understanding as a model. And in Kansas City, MO, Trauma Matters KC has more than 100 people who have signed a similar memorandum. People in Traverse City, MI, Topeka, KA, Meadville, PA, Gainesville, FL, Warwick RI, and Missouri state government have sought advice from Saenger about how to start similar projects.
“This is a long-term initiative,” says Saenger. “There’s not an end date to this. When everybody’s participating, there will be a cumulative impact.”
This is an update of an article about Tarpon Springs that Jane Ellen Stevens wrote in 2012, and is one of several articles about how different towns, cities, states and provinces are beginning to embrace an ACEs movement and become engaged in preventing/treating ACEs and promoting resilience. They were done as part of a Community Resilience Cookbook, produced by the Health Federation of Philadelphia with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.