Robert Simmons had been working with incarcerated men since 1998 and thought he’d seen everything. But in 2010, he met a grandfather, a father and a grandson—all of them inmates at Buncombe County’s Craggy Correctional Center.
“I saw how things are passed down from one generation to the next. That was a wake-up call for me,” says Simmons. And it underscored his resolve to help thwart that cycle.
Leaders of Buncombe County’s ACE Collaborative learned quickly that bringing agency professionals and community members together in the name of resilience-building was harder than it sounded.
Sometimes the leaders’ invitations to trainings or guest speakers drew just a trickle of response. Other times, the room crackled with tension—on one side, representatives of Buncombe County Health and Human Services (the backbone and fiscal agent for the Mobilizing Action for Resilient Communities project); on the other, community members wary of a government agency and unsure about why they’d been asked to the table.
“It was not comfortable at first,” says Jan Shepard, the county’s health division director. “We had to sit back and say, ‘We’ve got to let the community tell us what their needs are and in what ways we can support that.’ That was harder than any of us thought. It was an enormous growth exercise for everyone.”
Not long ago, Jan Shepard, Public Health Division Director of Buncombe County Health and Human Services, attended a presentation about the county’s still-in-the-works family justice center. Planners envision the center as a nexus of care and remedy—a place, for instance, where a survivor of domestic violence could speak with law enforcement officials, counselors and advocates in a single “safe place,” rather than having to navigate a fragmented system of providers.
Even though the presentation focused on the bricks-and-mortar aspect of the new center, a visiting speaker from San Diego talked about ACEs and trauma. For Shepard, that moment connected the dots: early adversity, family violence, supportive approaches and the ways various systems in the county—education, medical care, human services—are responding to new understandings of health and behavior.
Those changes are, at least in part, a result of the Buncombe ACE Collaborative, formed in 2012 to educate the medical and mental health communities about ACE assessment. The group grew from a learning collaborative—parents, educators, mental health and human service professionals who reviewed the literature on ACEs, created a handbook listing trauma and resilience resources and began piloting those materials with clients they were serving.
The Health Federation of Philadelphia serves as a keystone supporting a network of Community Health Centers as well as the broader base of public and private-sector organizations that deliver health and human services to vulnerable populations.