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They had an idea. Now, they're wondering if it will work. An innovative community, collaborative project is tackling childhood trauma.

Tom Gonzalez, Bridges of Hope Self-Healing Communities Project co-coordinator, explains a proactive approach to improving intergenerational health in the Brainerd lakes area with Bridges of Hope Executive Director Kassie Heisserer by his side Nov. 5. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch1 / 2
Jennifer Froderman, Crow Wing County Community Services foster care licenser (left) listens to Amy Wyant, Bridges of Hope Self-Healing Communities Project co-coordinator, as she discusses a proactive approach to tackling adverse childhood experiences. Heather Liebel, Lowell Elementary School family service worker, sits beside Wyant Nov. 5. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch2 / 2

It's been said it takes a village to raise a child, but imagine what would happen if a community came together to help children?

Community organizations took a new tact in August dealing with issues such as suicide, juvenile offenses and dropout rates by partnering with Bridges of Hope for a "self-healing community."

"It is a really, highly collaborative project," Bridges of Hope Executive Director Kassie Heisserer said of the early stages of the collaboration—a first for the Brainerd lakes area community. "Any time you are working with multiple people, it's really important to be good communicators with each other, but really over and over, I find this community is not one that is so worried about turf."

The self-healing communities model aims to build a community capacity to improve outcomes for health and social issues by reducing and preventing adverse childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect and household dysfunction, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"Part of the self-healing communities model is bringing together new ways of solving problems by looking at how we can build solutions around existing resources," said Amy Wyant, Bridges of Hope Self-Healing Communities Project co-coordinator.

Behind the idea

According to officials, the idea is to "engage the public, inspire innovation, support peer helping and ease the daily stress burden of parents to promote change so that together communities can better protect and nurture the next generation."

"We're for youth development for healthy living for social responsibility. ... but also for our members we have what's called 'child watch,' where members can drop their children, up to 7 years old, for up to two hours," Brainerd Family YMCA CEO Shane Riffle said.

"One of the barriers for parents as they are learning, going through the ACEs training or other training, is child care, so looking into the community and finding someone who can provide quality child care was an important barrier to overcome."

Crow Wing County, Bridges of Hope, College of St. Scholastica, Brainerd Public Schools, Brainerd Family YMCA and others are just some of the community partners in the project.

Riffle said, "It's not just two hours where they can drop their kids off. We are looking at this as another touchpoint, another opportunity to make an impact. We are training our staff as mentors ... to reinforce some of the outcomes that we'd like to see through the collaborative."

By promoting community and culture change, the project can help make dramatic reductions in youth and family problems and "develop strong networks that promote greater collaboration across the community," according to Crow County Community Services Director Kara Terry.

The county will focus on high-needs areas. The Self-Healing Communities Project is starting in the neighborhoods around Garfield and Lowell elementary schools with the intention of having people working together for safer, healthier neighborhoods.

"The project looks to reduce adverse childhood experiences in our community—ACEs for short—by building up the community's capacity to solve its own problems," said Tom Gonzalez, Bridges of Hope Self-Healing Communities Project co-coordinator.

"Too often in the past, it's the experts and the people with degrees that decide what those people need, and what we're saying is we need the whole community on board, especially with people with high ACE scores, to join the conversation."

According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, traumatic childhood events such as abuse, neglect and witnessing experiences like crime, parental conflict, mental illness and substance abuse can result in long-term negative effects on learning, behavior and health.

"We want to get the knowledge about ACEs out and then start talking as a community on how we're going to solve our problems," Gonzalez said.

Adverse childhood experiences can create dangerous levels of stress that can derail healthy brain development, and increase risk for smoking, alcoholism, depression, heart disease, and dozens of other illnesses and unhealthy behaviors throughout life.

"Tom and I, we invited to the table for the first time the principals from Garfield and Lowell ... and we talked about how do we solve these problems and ... we were looking at where are parents already engaged ... and who else can help solve these problems," Wyant said.

Bridges of Hope

Bridges of Hope seeks to raise $100,000 to fund the first year of the five-year project—primarily the cost it will take to employ a person to work on the project in the summer or early fall.

"This project actually started back in 2015 ... because Crow Wing County Community Services saw an increased rate of out-of-home placements for kids and ... the data was telling us that arrest records were connected to parents' use of alcohol and drugs," Wyant said.

"There were four stakeholder meetings, including the nonprofit sector, the for-profit business sector, the church community, law enforcement, Crow Wing County Community Services ... and they were going to look at models that had been successful in other parts of the country."

Driving increases in the county's 2019 preliminary budget are methamphetamine use and county employee health insurance costs. Final board approval of the budget is slated for December.

"This Self-Healing Communities Project has some real support behind it, including financially," Wyant said. "They have put their money where their mouth is in support of this."

Brainerd Lakes Area Community, Initiative and Essentia Health-St. Joseph's foundations, city of Brainerd, Crow Wing Energized, Crow Wing County Community Services, Crow Wing Power Community Trust, and United Way of Crow Wing and Cass Counties committed over $126,000 to the project.

"Washington state is about 10-15 years ahead of us in this work in ACEs and reducing, and what they found was with this collaborative approach that they now call the 'Self-Healing Communities model' ... there was dramatic improvement in all kinds of areas," Gonzalez said.

"Lots of times we focus on child abuse or neglect ... but when we work together collaboratively as a community, ACEs tended to drop simultaneously while we bring up the communities' capacity to solve problems and empower people to be involved in the conversation."

As part of its November-December campaign, Bridges of Hope is looking to raise $60,000 by Dec. 31 to support the faith-based nonprofit's work in the Brainerd lakes area.

"We are seeing an increase in the amount of kids who are having difficulty focusing at school, building relationships, and an increase of just really frustrated behaviors from kids out on the playground," Garfield Elementary School Principal Jodi Kennedy said.

"There is always an invisible backpack of things that have happened before they get to us, and they aren't going to tell us what's in there, but we're going to have to figure out what's in there to get them through that, so that we can get them to the learning part."

Resident surveys were conducted Oct. 13 in the Garfield and Lowell school neighborhoods and a partnership was formed with the College of St. Scholastica on data evaluation and reporting.

"And it's about having our staff being knowledgeable in the ACEs program and resiliency, and how to talk to kids that are coming to school that had, you know, a really rough morning ... and how we can support those kids and families," said Heather Liebel, a family service worker at Lowell.

Jennifer Froderman is a Crow Wing County Community Services foster care licenser who is also part of the Self-Healing Communities Project.

"The reason I'm here is because we're hoping to train foster parents on how to identify ACEs and how to handle these behaviors, so that these child placements don't fail," Froderman said.

Working together

Bridges of Hope and the College of St. Scholastica social work program have a 10-year history of working together and collaborating on multiple events and community needs, according to Tracy Mongan, a college representative.

According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Washington communities that used the model for eight years or greater reduced the rates of child abuse and neglect, family and youth violence, youth substance abuse, dropping out of school, teen pregnancy and youth suicide.

"What inspires me most about this community movement is the connection it is providing for all community members. It doesn't matter what your position title is, it doesn't matter where you live, it doesn't matter what your income is, it doesn't matter who you know," Mongan said.

Organizers of the self-healing communities models anticipate the implementation to take 24-36 months and hope to see outcomes in three to five years.

"What matters is we all are one community, and we care about our community and each other. This is a privilege to be a part of," Mongan said.

For more information about the Bridges of Hope Self-Healing Communities Project, visit

Self-Healing Communities Project events

Bridges of Hope will host a free presentation 5:30-8 p.m. Nov. 27 at Lowell Elementary School, 704 Third Ave. NE, about ACEs, overcoming them and preventing them.

"Let's Talk Solutions: A Community Conversation" will be a discussion about the Self-Healing Communities Project in the Garfield and Lowell neighborhoods. Free child care and appetizers will be available at the public event.

Development of the foster-care providers training event and creation of a professional learning community and support network for the providers in Crow Wing County will occur Dec. 6, and there will be an event at Central Lakes College with the College of St. Scholastica Jan. 16.