Breaking Barriers for Children in Rural Appalachia: Overcoming Adversity and Realizing Childhood Dreams
Every child has a dream. To be an astronaut. To be a father. To be a teacher. To help people as a doctor. But life is not kind to every child’s dreams. Too often the circumstances of one’s birth - circumstances beyond the child’s control - determine the trajectory of their life. This is because significant or repeatedly stressful experiences, without the buffering presence of a stable and nurturing adult, can actually affect the development of a child’s mind and body.
The science of childhood adversity tells us that prolonged or repeated stress, and the resulting elevated hormone levels, can have lasting biological impacts; impacts which are often compared to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) experienced by armed service members.
These biological changes can also result in an increased risk of chronic disease and even early death. Increased instances of alcohol and drug use and suicide attempts have been connected to toxic stress in childhood as well. Children who have suffered trauma are more likely to experience academic failure, and have attendance and behavior challenges.
The ten most common types of childhood trauma have come to be known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and include the
absence of a caregiver due to incarceration or divorce, physical and emotional abuse and neglect, and substance abuse, domestic violence and mental health diagnoses in the family system.
Does this mean that our children’s futures are set the moment they are born? That dreams are only for children born lucky enough to escape trauma?
According to the latest research in child development and pediatric medicine, a child’s future does not have to be determined by the circumstances of their birth. Informed and compassionate community members can take action to heal childhood trauma and build resilience in youth so that they have the ability to overcome adversity- past, present and future.
Research shows that the single most important factor in determining long-term success and well-being is the presence of a safe, stable and nurturing adult. When trauma sends a child’s mind and body into fight or flight mode, the presence of that nurturing adult offers safety and assurance. That feeling of safety in turn can lower those hormone levels and thus decrease the long- term consequences caused by prolonged elevation of stress hormones in the body. Nurturing adults are therefore “buffers” against stress.
Did you know that it only takes one? Just a single caring adult can fill that role for a child. That adult can be a parent, an extended family member, or a school employee. At local non-profit Western Youth Network, or “WYN,” children ages 6-18 years old are connected to safe and nurturing adults and resources through evidence-based programs including one-on-one mentoring, out-of-school enrichment programs, and a high school success counselor. WYN’s Community Health team works in conjunction with these efforts by reducing and preventing environmental factors, such as substance abuse, that contribute to childhood trauma.
In the following exhibit, Breaking Barriers for Children in Rural Appalachia: Overcoming Adversity and Realizing Childhood Dreams, world-class photographer Scott Pearson and non-profit Western Youth Network invite you to read the story of trauma and resilience in this community through the eyes of our children. Each portrait shows a child enrolled at WYN as they pose in response to the prompt, “What is your dream?” Accompanying each photograph is a label which reveals the child’s name, desired career, and statement or fact they want viewers to know about them. There is extreme hardship in Appalachia, but with the love of community members and Organizations like WYN, we can help our children build resilience to break the barriers keeping them from realizing their dreams.
It takes a community to raise a community. Will you join us?