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By: Alicia Baxter — Office and Family Programs Coordinator, Mental Health America of Roanoke Valley 

Resilience by definition is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.  Yet, when we think about resilience, there are many factors that can contribute to someone being resilient or not. Studies show that the primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships inside and outside the family. Relationships that create love and trust, provide role models and offer encouragement and reassurance help strengthen a person’s resilience. Additionally, other factors include a positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities, skills in communication and problem solving, and emotion regulation.

One-fourth of this nation’s children are exposed to two or more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) now assesses 13 types of ACEs, including serious economic hardship, witnessing or experiencing violence in the neighborhood, alcohol/substance abuse, domestic violence of mother, mental health problems in the home, parental divorce, loss of parents to death or incarceration, sexual abuse of child, physical neglect or abuse of child, emotional neglect or abuse of child, and social rejection through racial and ethnic discrimination. ACEs can have serious, long-term impacts on a child’s health and well-being by contributing to high levels of toxic stress that derail healthy physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development. Research shows that ACEs increase the long-term risk for smoking, alcoholism, depression, heart and liver diseases, and dozens of other illnesses and unhealthy behaviors.

Roughly 40 percent of white children have one or more ACEs, compared to 51 percent of Hispanic children and nearly 64 percent of black children. ACEs are more prevalent among children in low-income families—62 percent of children with family incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level have had at least one ACEs. But they occur among children at all income levels—26 percent of children in families with incomes higher than 400 percent of the federal poverty level have had one or more ACEs as well. Children ages 3 to 5 who have had two or more ACEs are over four times more likely to have trouble calming themselves down, be easily distracted, and have a hard time making and keeping friends. Children ages 6 to 17 who have had two or more ACEs are twice as likely to be disengaged from school than are peers who have had no ACEs. 

How does Mental Health America of Roanoke Valley help children when we think about resiliency?  The fact is that since 1998, under the guidance of Ms. V. Diane Kelly and Ms. Ellen Wineman, the organization has been working to promote resiliency and reduce toxic stress into many “forgotten” victims.  The Forgotten Victims program, now in its 20th year, works with children ages 5-12 or in Kindergarten-Fifth Grade who have experienced the trauma of domestic and family violence. Ms. Kelly and Ms. Wineman found during a set of meetings that these children were being forgotten.  While programs existed for the adults either suffering from the abuse or perpetrating it, programs did not exist for children witnessing this violence.  We know from data that roughly 87% of children witness domestic violence occurring in their home, and it was through the dedication and expertise of Kelly and Wineman that Forgotten Victims filled the void in programming and continues to do so in this day. While ACES were not understood or studied when Kelly and Wineman created Forgotten Victims, we now know – more than ever- how domestic and family violence along with other traumas can impact our youth and impact their success and stability as an adult.  Mental Health America of Roanoke Valley is working to incorporate this new knowledge, and new best practices to assure that our children have the greatest opportunity to not just survive but to thrive despite the experiences that have left them scarred as a child.

Currently, MHARV is excited about the continued evolution of the program that is still working to provide opportunities for healing for child witnesses of domestic violence.  For example, in Fall 2017 Forgotten Victims has begun to use an evidenced-based, trauma-informed curriculum that is focused on building resilience in children. The Forgotten Victims academic year program, currently lead by Alicia Baxter – Mental Health America of Roanoke Valley’s Office and Family Programs Coordinator, has covered topics including self-esteem, identifying emotions, emotion regulation, and accepting responsibility for our actions. The passionate volunteers for the program, who include Ms. Ellen Wineman, works to engage the students with activities that include a focus on mindfulness.  Students have engaged in working on weekly deep breathing exercises, stretch and breathe during our Yoga sessions lead by a volunteer practitioner, enjoying the art of mindful and meditative drawing with Sacil Armstrongs ZenTangle program, and moving and grooving with Anderson Music Therapy musical workshops.  Students still love arts and crafts, and had a blast creating their own stress balls out of balloons and flour and balloons and rice, and look forward to their weekly snack time as usual! Many of our children come from economic hardship, so we are very thankful for the investment support that allows MHARV to continue to offer this program in full, free of charge.  The organization is looking forward continuing to watch the students grow in this program and we are honored to have the continued support of our founders and volunteers that enable MHARV to provide our students with education, experiences, fun, and mentorship that will continue to strengthen their opportunity for resilience for these “forgotten” victims!