Most of the seven stress-busting strategies the California Surgeon General's Office have identified to help reduce toxic stress feel so simple, like being out in nature, eating a balanced, nutritious diet or getting sufficient, high-quality sleep, but they work.
So when Mary Ann Hansen was looking through applications for the 2021-2022 First Five Humboldt and Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Collaborative Partnership grants, she was inspired by a few, including Cooperation Humboldt's mini garden project that would provide families with gardening materials, knowledge and the "confidence to empower more gardeners," giving families both access to nutritious foods and time spent outdoors.
"I was really inspired this year by the Cooperation Humboldt project," Hansen said. "I think that we know from the research that it's one of the seven stress busters that [California Surgeon General] Nadine Burke Harris has in her toolkit: to get out in nature. It lowers our stress response (levels) and helps those stressors from becoming toxic stress and producing those negative, life-long outcomes, and so I was really inspired by the gardening project."
With Measure S, the county's cannabis excise tax that passed in 2016 and brings in more than $10 million in annual revenue, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors made a commitment to ensure funding for programs that improve the physical, mental and emotional health of children and reduce the number of ACEs.
For the past handful of years since the first round of funding, the board and DHHS have collaborated with First Five Humboldt and allocated $400,000 annually to go to mental health services for children and families, with $200,000 going out as community grants, known as the ACEs Collaborative Partnership, and the other $200,000 going directly to First Five Humboldt in reimbursements for community resilience projects, playgroups and mental health work.
In 2014, the Center for Youth Wellness released a study that highlighted the impacts adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) had in Humboldt County. It found that Humboldt and Mendocino counties combined have the highest rate of adverse childhood experiences in California, with about 75 percent of residents having experienced one or more of these childhood traumas and 30 percent having experienced four or more. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente identified ACEs as falling into one of 10 categories: sexual, emotional and physical abuse; emotional or physical neglect; living in a household with someone who suffers from mental illness, domestic violence, substance abuse or divorce; or having an incarcerated relative. Each experience counts as one ACE, with the total representing an ACE score on a scale of one to 10. All these experiences put children under stress and at risk of extreme toxic stress if they experience more than one.
The study also found that the more ACEs a person experiences, the more likely they are to have extremely poor health outcomes later in life due to chemical imbalances of cortisol, the stress hormone. A person with four or more ACEs is more than five times as likely to suffer from depression, twice as likely to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), nearly three times as likely to smoke and more than three times as likely to binge drink than the average person.
The CYW study brought into focus what Humboldt County had long been experiencing, the poor health and behavioral outcomes brought on by childhood trauma.
Since the report was published and Gov. Gavin Newsom created a state Surgeon General's office, reducing ACEs has been one of California's top priorities, training doctors to screen for ACEs, sharing valuable information like the science behind toxic stress and how to build resilience (including the seven stress-busting strategies).
Identifying the stress-reduction strategies was just one part of the Surgeon General Office's mission of reducing childhood trauma and building resilience. The other four strategies include having supportive relationships with caregivers, other family members and peers; getting regular physical activity, being mindful and using meditation; and getting mental healthcare, including psychotherapy or psychiatric care, and substance use disorder treatment when needed.
Around the same time as the state, community organizations like First Five Humboldt and the county board of supervisors have tagged along and committed to providing funding to community organizations to provide services that align with the state's mission of reducing ACEs and their impacts.
"There's no one magic solution in addressing childhood trauma and toxic stress in our community," Hansen said. "I believe that the only way we're going to address the issue and achieve better outcomes for everyone in Humboldt is if we're all working together and bringing our best selves, our best insights, our best hearts for families in Humboldt, so the grant project is a great way of bringing in agencies and community members who have probably not thought about how they could address ACEs in their communities and giving them an opportunity to meet those needs directly and be a part of a larger movement within our county to create better, life-long outcomes for our children."
First Five Humboldt and DHHS are responsible for selecting grant proposals for projects that would help build resilience, independence, diversity, growth, education and success in Humboldt County children and their families; provide services and support that address trauma and help break the intergenerational impacts of ACEs and promote education, information and resources regarding ACEs; activities that support children and their families in all areas of their mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, cultural and social health and well-being; activities that promote one of the three protective factors: social connections, knowledge of parenting and child development, and social and emotional competence of children, or any project that promotes any of the seven stress-busting strategies that the state identified.
Projects can range from providing training to counseling, creating access to food and even theater and dance projects.
This is the second season that Cooperation Humboldt has installed mini gardens in the community. Their mission is to ensure that more people have greater access to nutritious food.
"Generally, from my perspective, there's the obvious piece of better access to fresh, nutritious food, which is a problem for a lot of lower income folks so, you know, being able to have some lettuce grow outside is obviously a benefit for health but, in addition to that, we've heard from a lot of recipients talking about the benefits for their children of connecting with nature and spending time outdoors with a trusted adult in their life and learning a new skill. And there's been a lot of studies of the mental health benefits of being in nature and making contact with dirt — it's good for you," Cooperation Humboldt Board Member Tamara McFarland said. "Most people who have done any gardening will tell you they sense that deep down in their soul that there's something about it that's healing and connecting with something larger than yourself."
This year, the county granted 10 organizations with funding for various projects, including the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria, Changing Tides Family Services, Little Redwoods Preschool, the Center at McKinleyville, Mattole Valley Resource Center, Redwood Community Action Agency, Redwoods Rural Health Center and Southern Humboldt Family Resource Center.
Hansen was also inspired by Playhouse Arts' Skue-Yech Son-ee-nah (We are Becoming Well) project, which is a multi-year collaboration with Yurok Tribe Wellness (YTWC) and Playhouse Arts. The ACEs grant will support the kindergarten through third grade program component, which is centered around a traditional Yurok story about a little bird with strong help-seeking behaviors.
In its application, Playhouse Arts wrote that the goal is to share Yurok traditional stories through shadow puppetry with school-age children, connecting them with Yurok culture, traditional values and wellness using shadow puppetry to address the social aspects of opioid addictions, improve community awareness and reduce stigma to promote resilience and recovery.
Overall, Hansen has been inspired by the outpouring of community-based organizations that are looking to provide services to help their communities.
"It's amazing to see how committed local organizations are to addressing adverse childhood experiences and providing better support for families," she said. "I really appreciate that they are looking at the needs that they see in their individual communities and coming up with ways to address those communities and respond to those needs. It's been really inspiring to see them step forward."
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