Fighting the trauma that afflicts too many Philly children

Warm weather often brings a rise in crime and violence to Philadelphia, just as students and families head outdoors to enjoy a brief respite from the rigor of the school year and winter’s cold. The dichotomy of this phenomenon is upsetting, yet unsurprising. The reality is that so many children in our city do not reach their potential. It is undoubtedly a struggle to grow up in a city with the highest poverty rate of the nation’s 10 largest cities, persistent violent crime, and poor education attainment.

At the root of these struggles is trauma. According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study and various expansions upon this research, the prevalence of abuse, living in unsafe neighborhoods, witnessing violence, or encountering racism can result in increased life and health risks.

As CEO of a nonprofit that has served children and families impacted by trauma for 140 years, I’ve witnessed firsthand the pervasive and crippling effects trauma can have upon a community. For me, this has been particularly apparent in Southwest Philadelphia, where a 36 percent poverty rate plagues residents who need better access to health care, education, and family services. Add to that a violent crime rate that ranks in the 10 highest of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, and it is unsurprising to learn that 30 to 45 percent of the population has experienced four or more ACEs and only 7.2 percent have graduated college.

While Philadelphia is already actively working toward becoming a trauma-informed city, most notably through its development of the Philadelphia ACE Task Force, there remains an acute need for a comprehensive response to address the high incidence of ACEs in Southwest Philadelphia. This type of large-scale social change cannot be facilitated by any singular organization. Instead, it requires cross-sector coordination from a group committed to solving the same social problem.

This is known as “collective impact,” a strategy for addressing complex social problems that has gained widespread support in recent years for its ability to generate measurable change. The acclaimed framework was adopted by the Obama administration when launching the Promise Zones initiative in 2014, and it continues to provide the foundation for success seen by other collaborations established to address systemic social problems in Philadelphia, including Read by 4!, Shared Prosperity, and Age Friendly West Philadelphia.

I believe the only way to reduce the prevalence of adverse childhood experiences in the Southwest is to empower our community to lift itself up by coming together to create an interconnected network committed to the community’s betterment. A collective impact initiative of this nature has been established in the form of the Southwest Children’s Wellness Collaborative, which is dedicated to improving the lives of children and families through improved access to vital resources and services. The efforts of more than 30 organizations involved are focused on engaging community members, celebrating the good that already exists, and weaving an understanding of trauma into the very fabric of the community.

By working with local experts, these organizations are developing an education and trauma training program for area schools and day-care facilities. They’re also working to create a comprehensive directory of resources, bring healing and mindfulness into Southwest schools, and introduce programs addressing systemic racism into the community.

With so many children in the Philadelphia region striving against overwhelming odds to succeed in school and in life, we have an obligation to join together and work toward bettering our region. I look to you — the leaders of our city, the residents within our community and the organizations serving the Southwest — and challenge you to add your support to this collective impact initiative and help us support the Southwest by reducing trauma and caring for our children.

I am hopeful that when future summers descend upon the city, we will be able to celebrate with many students and families whose lives and hope for a better future were improved by all of our work.

Darlene Hewett is president and CEO of the Village, which has offices in Rosemont and Philadelphia. dhewett@village1877.org