Renee Wilson-Simmons was living in New York City and working as director of the National Center for Children in Poverty
when she and her colleagues began doing work around adverse childhood experiences or ACEs.
Memphis kept coming up as a trailblazer in efforts to understand and address ACEs.
"ACEs at their core can be summarized as the lack of safe, stable, nurturing relationships, and environments,” said Wilson-Simmons, who now serves as executive director of the ACE Awareness Foundation in Memphis.
The foundation is tasked with reducing toxic stress in family systems, supervising five Universal Parenting Places
, and overseeing the ACE Task Force of Shelby County.
For a child, a toxic stress event typically falls into three categories: abuse, neglect, or household dysfunction a caregiver in active addiction or incarcerated.
Renee Wilson-Simmons, executive director of the ACE Awareness Foundation in Memphis. (Submitted)
Wilson-Simmons said one of the biggest misconceptions about ACEs is, “the incorrect conclusion that the experiences define a person’s destiny.”
“It does not mean your destiny is poor outcomes, it means you need to understand how it has affected you and what you can do differently for your children,” she said.
High Ground News is partnering with the ACE Awareness Foundation on a year-long series of stories on ACEs in Memphis.
We'll examine the latest research in early intervention and long-term impacts of ACEs on adults and children in Memphis. We'll also focus on the organizations and individuals in Memphis and beyond who are working to help families and children navigate major challenges.
Tiffany Thomas-Turner, communications consultant with ACE Awareness Foundation. She said it may be hard for people to acknowledge that they need support when they are in survival mode, even in the midst of a national health and economic crisis.
She hopes the series of stories developed with High Ground will remind families to breathe. She also hopes people recognize ACE Awareness Foundation and the tools it offers as essential resources for Memphis, both in the pandemic and after.
“No one has to go through this [crises] in isolation,” she said. “Families have tools for dealing with trauma, but it can be difficult to remember what tools are in your toolbox. We want to help people remember and use what they have to pull through.”
Memphis, An ACE trailblazer
In 2014, the ACE Task Force of Shelby County was formed with 40 local leaders who wanted to raise awareness about the effects of adverse childhood experiences.
They conducted an ACE survey which revealed that 52% of adults in Shelby County experienced at least adverse experience before their 18th birthday.
Based on the survey results, leaders of the task force establish the ACE Awareness Foundation in 2015 with three primary objectives:
Tiffany Thomas-Turner, communications consultant with ACE Awareness Foundation. (Submitted)
- Educate Greater Memphis about adverse childhood experiences
- Work to change local and state systems and practices to support prevention efforts
- Support the healthy development of children and their families to prevent ACEs and mitigate their negative effects
One of the foundation’s most successful programs is its Universal Parenting Places or UPPs where parents, caregivers, and families can receive free professional counseling and engage in programs that promote healthy home environments. (More on these later in the series.)
As the foundation grows, it continues to partner with several community stakeholders and offer training and trauma informed strategies on helping families.
The UPPs are located at Baptist Memorial Hospital for Women in East Memphis, Knowledge Quest in South Memphis, Perea School in North Memphis, and Christ Community Health Services' Raleigh location.
WHAT PARENTS ARE SAYING
With the onset of COVID-19, the foundation found creative ways to stay engaged with the community, including telehealth services, with some pros and cons.
Thomas-Turner said the virtual transition to telehealth services was a big success.
Invitations to counseling sessions or activities at the UPP centers usually yielded 15-20 participants. Some of the virtual activities the organization hosts on social media sites yields hundreds of participants, though it is hard to tell if all of the participants are in Memphis.
“Therapists can reach so many more families. We get more questions along the lines of, ‘I don’t feel like myself. I feel more depressed. Is there someone I can talk to?’” she said. “There are also more questions about, 'How can I be a better parent?'"
WHERE ACES GOT THEIR START
ACE research is only a little over two-decades old.
Published in 1998 by doctors Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda, the original Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study
is composed of medical records and a survey of more than 17,000 people at the Kaiser Permanente San Diego Health Appraisal Clinic.
According to the CDC, it is one of the largest studies on childhood abuse and neglect ever conducted.
From the study, three categories and ten types of ACEs were identified including: abuse which can be physical, emotional or sexual; neglect, which can be physical or emotional; and household dysfunctions which can include mental illness, an incarcerated relative, household violence, substance abuse, or divorce.
Two out of every three people surveyed or 67% had at least one adverse childhood experience.
The report was groundbreaking because it helped solidified the direct correlation between health—suicidal thoughts, drug use, depression, eating disorders and more—and early trauma.