Let’s Address the “Hidden” Issues Undermining our Kids’ Futures

By Agnes Leshner, Steering Committee member of the Children’s Opportunity Fund and Board member of 4Montgomery’s Kids


“The child may not remember, but the body does.” 

This quote stuck with me after watching the documentary, Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope How does one truly overcome trauma?  How can we break cycles of poverty and toxic stress from perpetuating across generations?

Still from the film  Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope.

Still from the film Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope.

These questions have been at the heart of my 25-year career in Child Welfare Services of Montgomery County, MD.  That is why I was so pleased to join the most recent Funders’ Roundtable gathering, which featured a rich discussion with local foundation leaders and Community Foundation donors after watching Resilience

Resilience centers on a seminal study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente which demonstrates how high exposure to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can wreak havoc on children’s brains and bodies. In addition to hindering academic achievement, exposure to multiple traumatic childhood events (such as abuse, neglect, persistent hunger, parental conflict, mental illness, and substance abuse, etc.) can result in long-term negative effects on learning, behavior, and health.

Many attendees were shocked to learn…

  • ACEs are common.  In fact, one in four people have had at least one adverse childhood experience. 

  • Individuals with three ACEs were found to be twice as likely to develop heart disease.

  • Individuals with four ACEs were found to be four times as likely to suffer from depression.

  • Individuals with six ACEs have a 20 years lower life expectancy.

For many low-income children ACEs are even more damaging. Experiencing a high number of ACES alongside additional challenges, such as racism and community violence, without the buffer of supportive adult relationships, can cause toxic stress.  While we all need a certain amount of stress to promote positive growth, children whose stress responses are constantly active due to ACEs actually experience physiological changes to the brain that can disrupt learning, change behavior, and even modify their DNA. Because of this linkage, the American Academy of Pediatrics asserts that ACES are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat for children in the United States.

But history is not destiny.  The studies around ACEs have led schools, healthcare providers, nonprofits, and social service agencies to try bold new interventions. Here are some examples:

  • The Center for Youth Wellness in the Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood of San Francisco, CA – a traditionally underserved community - has established a protocol to screen all its pediatric patients for ACEs. Center staff work with local social service providers to pilot treatments for toxic stress and share their findings nationally.

  • In New Haven, CT, Strong Elementary School partnered with the Center for Post Traumatic Stress to bring Miss Kendra’s List to students beginning in kindergarten. This program teaches children the norms of child safety and gives them an outlet to express their worries to guardian figure named Miss Kendra, a fictional character who has overcome adversity and demonstrated resiliency. ALIVE Counselors write back to every child to help build their inner strength.

  • In the early 2000s, over 30 counties in Washington state brought together educators, social workers, parents, police officers, and healthcare professionals to spur education, dialogue, and community building around ACEs. By implementing specific strategies, the counties were able to significantly lower suicide rates, incidents of domestic violence, and youth arrests, which has saved the state $1.4 billion over 10 years.

If you are passionate about this issue, please join us!  Contact Kimberly Rusnak, Project Director of the Children’s Opportunity Fund to learn more about innovative strategies at work right here in our local community and help us bring together more people who will want to use these findings to improve the lives of children throughout our Montgomery County community.

After the screening of  Resilience,  the Community Foundation hosted a post-film discussion with Anna Hargrave, Executive Director in Montgomery County, Mindi Jacobson, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Future Link, Diego Uriburu, Executive Director of Identity, Dr. Carrie Zilcoski, Executive Director of Aspire Counseling, and Terrill North, Executive Director of Montgomery County Collaboration Council.

After the screening of Resilience, the Community Foundation hosted a post-film discussion with Anna Hargrave, Executive Director in Montgomery County, Mindi Jacobson, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Future Link, Diego Uriburu, Executive Director of Identity, Dr. Carrie Zilcoski, Executive Director of Aspire Counseling, and Terrill North, Executive Director of Montgomery County Collaboration Council.