By Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven
Students in the Honor Opportunity Purpose and Excellence — HOPE — program start each morning by breathing.
The alternative high school, nested within Tarboro High in Edgecombe County, is led by Quarry Williams, a man who’s moved up the public school food chain from bus driver to school counselor to administrator and nearly everything in between.
Once the students are settled, Williams comes to the front of the room and asks them to think of a place where they feel safe.
“Escape there for the next minute and a half,” he tells the teenagers, as he turns on calming music.
“Some students may come in and have had a horrible morning,” Williams said. The mindfulness exercise is intended to reset their focus, to place them in the here and now, so that, hopefully, they can come in and work, rather than spend the day agitated and on edge.
The school day has started this way for a while, and it was strengthened once Williams completed a nine-month training program, called the Resilient Leaders Initiative. It aims to teach rural leaders how trauma impacts the people they work with, how the systems they serve within can further exacerbate that trauma, and how to replace institutional policies that are harmful with ones that are healing.
At HOPE, that means in addition to the deep breathing before class, students now have access to a full-time school social worker and a calm-down corner, filled with plush furniture and a fish tank. Another key shift is in the way teachers and administrators approach students. Instead of asking ‘What is wrong with you?’, they ask ‘What happened to you?’
Stopping ‘the system’ in its tracks
All these strategies can help turn school from a hostile environment into a supportive one. Aside from being a worthy goal, the downstream effects can be even greater for children’s mental and physical health.
Researchers have found that regularly practicing mindfulness can lower depression, anxiety and blood pressure as well as improve sleep. Also, introducing kids to mindfulness practices and showing them how to integrate those into their daily lives are skills they can carry with them forever. For instance, if students find themselves outside of class getting stressed, instead of responding how they usually do, maybe they’ll remember how the five minutes where they sat quietly and breathed before class actually helped them calm down.
Moreover, when the adults around them treat them with care and respect, it can serve as a counterbalance to past negative experiences. It teaches kids they deserve to be treated with curiosity and kindness — and they ought to treat others the same.
“Once the students here are able to see that the people here genuinely care about them, have their best interests [at heart], the bad behaviors that others may have seen, we didn’t see,” Williams said. “I tell my students: All of us have bad days. But the thing is, when you have a bad day, it’s how you handle it.
“I’m not going to get upset with you if you say, ‘Mr. Williams, I need a moment. I’m not feeling good.’”
One of the biggest tools the program aims to give students, Williams said, is how to advocate for themselves.
“In a traditional school, they have so much in a day. Sometimes they don’t have the opportunity to effectively express themselves in a positive way,” Williams said. “The first thing they do? They’re gonna lash out and become angry and next thing you know the process, ‘the system’ comes into fruition.”
A trauma-informed community organization
The Resilient Leaders Initiative is a new program hosted by an Edgecombe-based organization called the Rural Opportunity Institute. The organization has been around for about five years. Though its community projects are deeply rooted in rural eastern North Carolina, it was founded by two newcomers.
Vichi Jagannathan and Seth Saeugling lived and worked in Northampton and Warren counties, respectively, as Teach for America instructors for two years. Once their contracts were over, they moved to the Bay Area to work in tech.
“When I left to work in San Francisco after, it was just, like, really jarring,” Jagannathan said. In Northampton County, where she’d been a high school science teacher, she’d felt and seen how connected people were to their own history in the region. In the Bay Area, nothing felt like that.
“I felt very disconnected. It was totally transient. I didn’t feel like anything people were talking about was connected to history,” she said.
At the same time, she and Saeugling found themselves learning all sorts of things that, were they to be implemented in a thoughtful and sustainable way, felt like they could help fill a lot of the needs they’d learned about while working in eastern North Carolina.
“The questions just started to eat away at us,” Jagannathan said. “I think both of us had this feeling like we should go back and see if there’s something there.”
From listening to practice
The two outsiders expected to be met with a healthy dose of skepticism, which they were.
“People would tell us, they’d be like ‘I’ll meet with you. But I’m cautiously optimistic about what you’re doing,’” Jagannathan remembered.
They spent nine months interviewing more than 300 people in the community and using organizational tools they’d learned in San Francisco to map out what people said they needed.
Spending that much time asking questions and listening “built a ton of trust,” she said. “I think people were like, ‘Okay, you actually are not coming in and telling us what we should do. You’re listening to us and then the programs are coming directly from that.’”
What they learned was that people in Edgecombe County were carrying a lot of trauma: generational poverty, limited job opportunities, the legacy of Jim Crow, repeated flooding from hurricanes, mass incarceration — for many people the pain just kept piling on, with little relief in sight.
Moreover, the systems they interacted with — the schools, the courts, social services — often made that trauma worse. Jagannathan and Saeugling knew they were not the ones to fix this problem. But they could bring people together who could — maybe — figure out how to solve some small segment of these problems.
The two tech pieces they brought to the process are called systems mapping and design thinking. They’re pretty common approaches in Silicon Valley to solving problems, but, so far, uncommon outside of it.
“Rather than hearing about someone’s problem and assuming that you know how to fix it,” design thinking “is a bunch of methods that you can use to work with the people who experienced the problem to think broadly about the best solution for their problem, and ensure along the way that it’s something that they will use,” Jagannathan explained.
Systems mapping is less about individuals and more about asking why things are the way they are.
“What are all the bigger forces at play for why we see these patterns of people’s experiences?” she said. “You’re looking for cycles — vicious or virtuous cycles — of things that keep repeating that produce these outcomes.”
After hearing stories from so many different interviewees about how trauma from different sources weighed on them, they tried to create a visualization that would show how these dynamics fit together.
If they could see where these things touched, maybe they could help community leaders design solutions that could interrupt these processes and create space for something different.
Alternative schools often come with the reputation that they’re for ‘bad’ kids — kids with behavioral issues.
Some of the students in the HOPE program do arrive there for behavioral reasons — the program serves as an alternative to suspension — but that’s not everyone. Some come by their parent or principal’s recommendation, others are there to recover credits lost because of missed school time.
When they began their nine-month training, one of the dynamics that Williams and the other instructors wanted to interrupt for their students was stigma — that they were bad kids who went to a bad school. They’d seen how it impacted the self-image of kids and the expectations they and others set for themselves.
To do that, Williams and his team came up with three “little bets,” in the language of the program: small, do-able experiments that — if they worked — could make a significant impact on the health and well-being of the students in the program.
Looking at the general health indicators of Edgecombe County can be overwhelming. It’s considered one of the least healthy counties in North Carolina, according to annual nationwide county health rankings. Nearly 30 percent of county residents report that their health is “poor or fair,” 45 percent of children live in poverty, and 19 percent of residents struggle with “severe housing problems.”
With one tiny exception, the entire town of Tarboro and its surrounding areas are considered to be areas of “significant neighborhood deprivation,” a term used to describe the level of socioeconomic need in a region and how that impacts the health of a community.
The logic behind “little bets” is that taking a bite-sized approach to these giant problems is more helpful than trying to tackle the whole thing. By picking out one small piece of the puzzle, people can try different interventions and actually see their impact.
Those small victories can have a big impact, showing people how they can take control. The approach can also help alleviate despair.
Williams’ three bets were all centered around helping students change their vision of themselves. The first task was to show kids that they could get a job even though they went to an alternative school, which carries negative connotations. They taught the students resume and interview skills and partnered with a local seasonal employer who went on to hire some of the students.
The second included figuring out how to get a full-time mental health worker inside the alternative school. There are a couple of social workers within the Edgecombe County School District, but not enough.
“We have some of the most vulnerable students in our buildings, so they need constant support,” Williams said. “In this project, I didn’t want to do anything that would put a Band-Aid on it. I wanted to do something that would be sustainable.”
Through conversations with his students, Williams learned that lots of them had experienced abandonment.
“You’ll find out students have had people that they were very close to, leave them,” he said. “Then they start internalizing that, like ‘There’s something wrong with me, everybody’s left me.’ So I didn’t want us to provide the healing and then take it away.”
Through hours of conversations and research with the organization’s co-founders, Williams figured out how to use Medicaid to fund a full-time social worker in the HOPE school, as EducationNC previously reported.
“I would say 75 percent of our students have Medicaid, so the other 25 percent don’t,” Williams said. “Those 25 percent we’re just doing pro bono, but because of a grant we’re able to meet that need.”
The third experiment, called PhotoVoice, teaches students about photography and shows them how they can use photographs and art to tell their own stories. The project also took them on a field trip to an art museum so they could see other artists’ photographs, and how they displayed their work.
At the end of the project, students set up an exhibit of their own work using inspiration from the museum.
“There was one photo where a student was running and jumping up in the air, and the student caught the picture at the right moment and it looked like he was walking on air,” Williams said. “Once you see yourself in a different light — that young man running and jumping, that experience shows that he’s happy, he’s joyful — in seeing that, that can be a visual reminder, a reset, to go back and say, ‘Look, I remember how I felt on that day.’”
“That’s how you build resilience,” he said.
“Everything that we’re doing, we’re doing it to build resilience.”
Regular people can help each other through trauma
Four other organizations participated in the same nine-month training: a preschool, a middle school, the Edgecombe County courthouse and a church. Part of the organization’s goal is to teach as many people in this rural community about trauma — especially early childhood trauma — and how it impacts people for the rest of their lives.
“Childhood trauma has been declared a public health issue. So we’re understanding that when we are young, and we experience stressful events, that has long term complications,” said Tyler Keith, a clinical social worker in Wilmington who works with children and specializes in trauma processing.
“For some reason, we’ve gotten really comfortable not talking about it.”
Projects that teach communities about traumatic experiences, what trauma responses look like, and how regular people can support and respond compassionately and effectively to others when they’re experiencing trauma are all critical pieces of education, Keith says.
He said it doesn’t take a therapist to help someone process their trauma.
“It certainly is helpful when there’s significant challenges and I certainly recommend it, but a lot of times the biggest piece about a therapist is that it’s judgment-free. It’s safe. And there’s going to be unconditional positive regard,” Keith said. “There’s not going to be a situation where I’m suddenly challenging someone’s character because they’re responding from a place of hurt.”
Responding that way is “something that our pastors can do, our spouses can do, our teachers can do. We don’t have to have a trauma-informed intervention,” he said. “We just have to have a kind, loving response.”
Caring for the helpers
The second Resilient Leaders cohort began in April. One of the participating organizations is the Wilson County Department of Social Services. They haven’t decided on their specific “little bets” yet, but their overall goal is to prevent burnout among their direct service workers so that they can better serve the community.
“I worked in this field for probably 15 years before I even started to recognize what my stress looked like,” said Nikki Mears, the child welfare program manager at the department. She said she spent years trying to ignore the way her experience at work followed her home.
“I was always kind of telling myself, ‘Well, someone in the world’s got it worse than me. I gotta power through. It’s okay. You can deal with this because someone else does,’” she said. “It affected my own parenting of my own children. It affected my marriage.
“I have no doubt that it has affected my physical health over all these years. And so one of my biggest hopes is to change that for people coming into the field.”
The tools that the social workers have learned so far include staying in touch with their bodily responses. It’s a technique that comes from psychology and social work — meaning the Wilson DSS employees likely learned it in school — but they say that it’s easy to forget fundamentals when your whole day consists of bouncing from one crisis to the next.
The training has helped remind them what resources they do have, and how they can bring their best selves to each new client.
“We are the system causing the trauma sometimes,” Mears said.
“Bringing a child into foster care, for example, is a traumatic experience,” she explained. “By doing that — in and of itself —the system is causing trauma for that child, even if they have to come out of a really unsafe situation.”
READ MORE RURAL HEALTH stories
The trauma these kids carry with them can cause behavioral outbursts that foster parents struggle to deal with. If a foster parent decides they can’t deal with the kid’s behavior anymore, and they have to be moved again, that’s yet another traumatic experience for that child.
All that carries over into school and eventually into the workplace.
If the Wilson social workers can take a minute to share these calming tools with families, maybe those families can use them — for themselves, and the kids. And maybe, they’ll be able to care for those children longer.
“At least that’s my hope and my guess,” Mears said. “I bet my paycheck on that being true.”
Correction: A previous version of this article referred to the Rural Opportunity Institute as a non-profit. It is an organization which is fiscally sponsored by Area L AHEC, a 501c3 non-profit.