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Columbia River Gorge Region, OR

2016: Adding Up the “Small Things”

At the recent Trauma & Resiliency Summit in the Columbia River Gorge, the sheriff of Sherman County (population 1700) approached Claire Ranit, MARC project director, to talk about creating a trauma-informed justice system. He wasn’t the only one seeking Ranit out that day.

A woman with tears in her eyes also approached; inspired by discussions of resilience at the Summit, she’d texted her 20-year-old son, who has developmental disabilities, and praised his recent efforts to move into his own apartment.

“She’d texted him to say, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ She said it’s usually difficult to engage with him, but he wrote back immediately and thanked her. That’s just one little thing,” Ranit says. “But thousands of those ‘one little things’ is how we make a generational change.”   

The region’s MARC project is a partnership between the Columbia Gorge Health Council, a community-based governing board for the local Coordinated Care Organization (CCO) that manages care for poor and vulnerable patients, and Creating Resiliency in the Columbia River Gorge, a multi-sector network. Its aim, especially since Ranit was hired in the spring of 2016, is to engage leaders in health and justice while supporting community organizations to apply trauma-informed practices to their work. “I think you need both to really make movement—you need leadership buy-in and grass-roots energy,” Ranit says.

The Beginning of a Movement 

Ranit, who relocated from Portland, began with several dozen coffee meetings in an effort to forge relationships with community members, agency leaders and local government representatives. Some had adopted the Sanctuary Model; others were skeptical of that approach.

“Some organizations were under the impression that the only way to engage with trauma-informed efforts was to train in the Sanctuary Model,” Ranit says, so she needed to assure them that other approaches were also viable and welcome.

Meantime, trauma-informed practice has gained traction in the region. The local Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) sent five staff members to be trained in the Sanctuary Model, and the CCO’s board of directors has requested similar training. “They are making decisions about how they’re going to spend millions of dollars. To have them approach that from a trauma-informed and resilience perspective is a huge boon for our community,” Ranit says.

At the Summit, an Oregon state representative served as emcee; attendees included representatives from local justice systems and jails, educators, health practitioners and community members.

“A lot of the speakers focused on shifting our perspectives,” Ranit says. “We recognize that we’re asking people to change—not because they’re doing something bad or they’ve failed; we’re asking them to change because we have new knowledge and understand how to do things better.”

A Community Working Together for Change

In this first year of the MARC project, core team leaders have worked on matching short-term goals with long-term vision. For instance, an early aim was to encourage universal screening for ACEs. “We had a conversation about how screening for ACEs is not a bad thing, but in no way affects the occurrence of ACEs,” Ranit says.

In addition, the Westat survey showed that community agencies had doubts about widespread screening for trauma and resilience when they lacked sufficient resources to act on what those screenings would reveal. That led to a different first step: cataloguing the resilience-based and trauma-informed resources available in the community. Ranit hopes that next steps include outreach to Spanish-speaking populations and engagement of Native American communities.

Sustaining the Work

Creating Resiliency recently launched a website; Ranit will work on a communication guide to bring clarity and consistency to discussion of ACEs, trauma and resilience. “What do we mean as a community when we say ‘trauma-informed’? Do we want to use that word? Having a shared language will be a big win, if we can achieve it.”

Two ongoing learning collaboratives will continue in the MARC project’s second year, along with a new staff-exchange through which members of two organizations committed to Sanctuary can attend each other’s core team meetings. Ranit hopes to identify champions from the physical health, dental health and justice systems—individuals whose organizations will support their work with the MARC project. She’ll continue to meet with service groups such as Rotary.

Along with other leaders in the network, she is also looking at ways to sustain the work; one possibility is for organizations to purchase a membership fee that would entitle them to training, coaching and technical assistance while funding a half-time staff person.

The recent Summit, attended by over 200 people, demonstrated a solid, shared knowledge base about ACEs and trauma theory. “In the past, people would leave out the resilience piece; without that, it’s very doom-and-gloom,” Ranit says. This time, workshops focused on “positive youth justice,” “trauma-informed education” and “mental health first aid,” with a keynote talk by MARC advisor Laura Porter on “Building a Resilient Community.”

Lessons Learned

A lesson from this first year is that community organizations need to be involved from the inception, Ranit says. “None of us likes to hear: My way or the highway. If you’re going to try to create something for the community, you need to make space for people to engage in the process. Invite them to the table early.”

Meanwhile, she’s buoyed by hearing from a Head Start teacher who uses the Sanctuary Model practices when she meets with parents, or from counselors who model community-meeting questions when they talk with clients, asking, “How are you feeling? What is your goal today? Who can you look to for help?”

“A message I try to communicate is that once we have this knowledge [of ACEs and resilience], we have a responsibility to act on it. It can happen in a lot of different ways; it can be the small things. But we do not have the luxury to do nothing.”

Read 2015: Creating Sanctuary