Battle Creek

Organizations that help children thrive in Calhoun County work together to learn from one another

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

“Calhoun County is a great place to raise a child right now,” says Dawn Sperry, a Family Coach and Welcome Babies Specialist for the Calhoun County Intermediate School District’s Early Childhood Connections program.

Sperry, who lives in a neighboring county, says there are significant differences between the services available to children in Calhoun County compared to her home county.

Access to established and education-based playgroups on a drop-in basis, home visits, and developmental screenings are among the resources in Calhoun County that are making it a good place for children.

One initiative that is helping in that regard is that the scope of early childhood education efforts in the county recently have become more focused and collaborative, says Kathy Szenda Wilson. She is the co-executive director of BC Pulse, an organization that is a project of Michigan State University and which supports collective action to create systems changes to ensure that every child in Battle Creek has equal opportunity to experience quality early learning, health, economic security, safety and nurturing care.

BC Pulse engages more than 120 early childhood stakeholders, including educators and professionals, some of whom begin making home visits and developing a relationship with a family before their child is born.

“BC Pulse has been working with early childhood stakeholders since 2012,” Szenda Wilson says. “Through that work we’ve developed action teams that are focused on different strategies. We’re really digging deep to address issues of adversity and toxic stress.

“The focus is on making sure our kids are healthy and developmentally on track. We're looking at what keeps them from being healthy developmentally and on track.”

For those groups and organizations tasked with creating better outcomes for the county’s children the formation this year of the “Awareness to Action” or A2A Learning Collaborative offers a cohesive and intensive opportunity to come together to share information and learn from each other, Szenda Wilson says.

As the A2A collaboration was getting underway, Doug Grosso, owner of Professional and Personal Wellness, offered the group space to gather, meet and talk in a portion of the third floor of the building which he leases at 26 W. Michigan Avenue. 

Following a recent workshop and summit, participants told Szenda Wilson that they wanted a space where they could meet with others to learn from each other about ways to incorporate the NEAR Sciences into their practice. NEAR stands for Nuerobiology, Epogenetics, Adverse Childhood Experiences, and Resilience. She says more than 200 people involved in various aspects of this work are invited to Learning Collaborative gatherings.

“One of the manifestations of A2A was this space,” Szenda Wilson says, adding that BC Pulse won’t be leading A2A as it goes forward.

Kathy Szenda Wilson talks during a recent A2A meeting.

“Significant leadership is bubbling up from the collaborative and we will do a little bit of coaching and stay in the background,” she says. “We want to organize and empower more resident engagement and leadership. Some of that is about creating the space and tools and resources necessary. It’s not about forcing it and we will continually be asking what is needed.”

A major focus of A2A going forward will be on the science behind the causes of disruptive factors that result in a child not being developmentally ready to start school or be successful. One of the more powerful tools that will be used to identify these risk-factors is the Adverse Childhood Experience Study -- ACEs -- which originated through a study conducted in 1995 by the Centers for Disease Control and the Kaiser Permanente health care organization in California.

In that study, “ACEs” referred to three specific kinds of adversity children faced in the home environment--various forms of physical and emotional abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. Among the key findings, according to the Center on Developing Child at Harvard University, ACEs are quite common, even among a middle-class population: more than two-thirds of the population report experiencing one ACE, and nearly a quarter have experienced three or more. There is a powerful, persistent correlation between the more ACEs experienced and the greater the chance of poor outcomes later in life, including dramatically increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression, substance abuse, smoking, poor academic achievement, time out of work, and early death.

Over the course of the last two years, Szenda Wilson says she has devoted about 10 percent of her own time to learn more about ACEs and the critical role it plays in identifying the root causes of childhood experiences that have negatively impacted children and their parents. The starting point is often the answers an individual gives on the 10-question ACE questionnaire.

The rougher your childhood, the higher your score is likely to be, according to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard.

Dr. Kelli Collins, a Pediatrician with Grace Health in Battle Creek, screens children for ACEs and says that she treats many patients with behavioral issues, often times trauma can be misdiagnosed as ADHD. She says ACES aren’t limited to specific socioeconomic circumstances and it’s worthwhile to have the conversation with every patient.  

“In our community there’s a lot of trauma and adverse experiences that influence health outcomes down the road,” Collins says. “It’s not like it’s new information, but it’s really coming back into the conversation.”

Her first encounter with ACEs came while she was working in Hartford, Connecticut.  She connected with Szenda Wilson two years ago and says she is impressed at the way various sectors in the community are using ACEs to address issues impacting the county’s children.

The events coordinated and the conversations happening involve many different sectors, Collin says.  
“It’s nice to be able to connect and be speaking the same language about ACEs,” she says.  “So, as a clinical pediatrician, when I get calls from schools I can talk with teachers and have that common ground ACEs knowledge and vocabulary with them.”

Collins says she is encouraged by the emphasis of ACEs and trauma-informed care by the American Academy of Pediatrics.  The difficulty for many providers, she says, is that there are many ways to integrate ACEs into a medical practice. Some providers are concerned of time constraints and concerns that they may be opening issues they are not prepared to address.

“From a medical standpoint, it’s a tougher conversation to have, but it’s more worthwhile from a prevention standpoint and for relationship-building with families,” Collins says.  “Not all families are ready to have that conversation and you need to build relationships with those families and keep the conversation going.

Kathy Gross, an independent consultant, laughs while accepting a talking stone during an A2A meeting.

“On a global perspective we’re not at a point where ACEs is fully integrated in the community. On an individual level, we see for families that it clicks and it resonates and they can see the importance of it from a prevention standpoint and building those resilience factors.

In some ways, she says, “it’s a huge relief that they don’t have to solve their ACE’s and that they know they’re not alone and that someone is on their side.  Just acknowledging the ACEs can be therapeutic.”

This is what Sperry has encountered during her home visits with families. “Part of my work is helping prevent high scores for their children,” Sperry says.

“The most important work that I do is building relationships,” Sperry says. “Oftentimes survivors of trauma feel blame and shame about their experiences. What I share with families is that trauma reactions are very normal reactions to abnormal circumstances.

Sperry says her own personal experiences with ACEs have changed how she approaches and listens to families. She says she had a “pretty high” ACE score and a trauma training at Starr Commonwealth in Albion triggered a lot of things she hadn’t thought of for more than 30 years.

During that training there was a discussion about how having a high ACE score can affect a person’s health later in life. Sperry says she was diagnosed with pre-cancer 25 years ago and her three brothers have each had two separate incidences of cancer.

“As I was going through this course, things started coming together,” she says. “I had a parent with untreated mental illness and at times my childhood was unpredictable and scary,” Sperry says, “but, my other parent provided stability and lots of love and that helped me to build resilience.”

A favorite quote of hers is, “Every child needs at least one adult who is irrantionably crazy about him or her.”

The importance of building a good, strong attachment with at least one person in a child’s life is often addressed during Sperry’s conversations with her families. She says you can’t tell simply by looking at a person if they have a high ACE score and how that score may be impacting their familial relationships.

“I had a dad who had an ACE score of nine and the mom had a score of 10 and before me was this beautiful 2-year-old girl scoring above average on the developmental screenings that we use,” Sperry says. “The parents wanted a different life for their child and so we talked about ways they could build resilience in her life.”

About 90 percent of the families she works with have at least a couple of ACEs. She offers everyone the opportunity to take the test to anyone who is interested in learning more.

“I encourage parents to be that consistent, loving person in their child’s life who builds resilience,” Sperry says. “What’s predictable is preventable.  So parents have the opportunity to create a loving, consistent experience for their children.”

A developmental screener given every six months allows parents to see the results of the strong, good attachment they are working to form with their children, she says.

Sperry says she hopes the work being done with ACEs in Calhoun County will challenge other communities to do something similar.

“This work we’ve been doing has become deeply personal for the people doing it,” Szenda Wilson says. “What we know about ACEs is that it’s universal and so if we skip over the people doing the work and assume that the sole focus should be on the families served, they’re missing out on their own personal growth.”

Photos by John Grap of John Grap Photography. His work is featured here.

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.