Charter Oak Cultural Center, an arts education organization in Hartford, uses therapy and mindfulness to address childhood trauma.
The center, located in Connecticut’s first synagogue, is now an “ACEs Aware” institution – an institution that formally recognizes the lasting effects of childhood trauma and negative experiences, also known as ACEs. It also partners with 2AssureUs LLC, a Hartford therapy practice that primarily serves first- and second-generation immigrant families and youth, to provide counseling services to children and adults through its arts program for young people.
“Negative childhood experiences, such as witnessing or experiencing violence, whether verbal or physical, having a parent with addiction issues, make us more prone to mental health, relationship challenges, addictions and more,” said DaJavon Davis, co-founder of 2AssureUS. “We are delighted to partner with the Charter Oak Cultural Center to provide quality therapeutic support to the Charter Oak community.”
“What I’m proud of is that we’ve really laid out a roadmap of how to do this,” said Rabbi Donna Berman, executive director of Charter Oak. “It’s not just words. We implement these steps.
Negative childhood experiences can range from acute traumatic incidents to longer-term conditions, such as living with a caregiver who abuses drugs or alcohol.
ACEs are linked to long-lasting effects on the mind and body. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ACEs are one of many social determinants of health, such as poverty, racism, and chronic food insecurity, that can cause what is called toxic stress, leading to negative effects on children’s health and development.
They are also, unfortunately, common: 61% of adults in 25 states reported having had at least one type of ACE before age 18, and nearly 1 in 6 reported having had four or more types of ACE. more, according to a CDC study.
Up to 1.9 million cases of heart disease and 21 million cases of depression could be prevented by preventing ACEs, the CDC claims.
Berman said children at Charter Oak’s Youth Arts Institute, which serves 1,000 Hartford children and will soon serve 250 more, will learn how trauma gets under the skin and the skills to deal with it.
The institute now incorporates mindfulness and meditation at the start of each class and adds more yoga to the program. Charter Oak also conducts training for faculty, staff, parents and community members on the role trauma plays in everyone’s lives.
“We teach everyone the biology of [trauma], the neuroscience of it. But also: here are these simple techniques you can use to not act from this place,” Berman said.
On the counseling side, children and adults affiliated with the Youth Arts Institute can now access what is called body-centered psychotherapy. The techniques aim to integrate talk therapy methods with movement or physical action. For younger children, counselors may incorporate play therapy, a method popular among child psychologists that helps children feel comfortable talking about their feelings.
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Charter Oak accepts most major insurances, including HUSKY, Connecticut’s public health insurance. Payment assistance is available, and Berman said she also hopes to make the counseling services available to uninsured families.
Perhaps an indicator of his belief in the program, Berman abandoned his office at Building 21 Charter Oak to house the therapy room pending renovations to the adjacent building. “We wanted it to kick off straight away,” she said.
Susan Mazer, director of the Youth Arts Institute, said counseling services and the ACEs Aware designation are the “perfect next step” as Charter Oak grows.
“Charter Oak Youth Arts Institute has always provided a safe, nurturing and loving environment for our children to learn the arts,” Mazer said.
For Berman, Charter Oak’s offerings go beyond the arts. She also praises the strong and trusting relationships established over time between students and staff.
“The problem with trauma is that all it takes to heal it is to have a safe adult with you, if you’re a child. And if you don’t have it when you’re a kid, you can get it when you’re an adult,” Berman said. “I really, really hope this can have a ripple effect. And that a lot of people can start looking at it so we can just have more compassion for each other and more compassion for ourselves.
Seamus McAvoy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.