Building a Resilient Payne County

By Carolynn MacAllister

The Stillwater Community has launched a Resilience Coalition called Resilient Payne County after the showing of the documentary ”Resilience: The Biology of Stress & The Science of Hope” on Apr. 4, 2017, at the OSU Student Union Theater. This documentary started a comprehensive resilience and trauma informed care (TIC) policy change and community engagement movement across America.  The documentary raises awareness of the most important public health research of our time, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) Study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente.  It was the first significant and large-scale study to examine the relationship between ACES and health consequences in adulthood.

The ACES study was published in 1998 and included two critical discoveries:

  1. ACES are very common, as 2/3 of the 17,000 participants had experienced at least one ACE and one in eight had experienced four or more.
  2. The higher the ACE score, the higher the risk of developing common long-term health problems such as ischemic heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, autoimmune disease, depression, obesity, drug and alcohol addiction, and anxiety.

The original categories of the ACES study included:

  1. Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.
  2. Physical and emotional neglect.
  3. Mother treated violently.
  4. Substance abuse/misuse within household.
  5. Parental separation or divorce.
  6. Incarcerated household member.
  7. Household with mental illness.

Recent scientific research has shown the chemicals and hormones produced in unmitigated and continuous toxic stress can modify how your genes turn on and off, called epigenetic modifications. Epigenetic modifications occur early in life when the specialized cells of organs like the brain and heart can have a powerful negative impact on lifelong physical and mental health.

ACES and the significant health effects caused by them are of particular importance in Oklahoma because in 2014, Child Trends Data reported that the state has the most childhood trauma in the highest quartile among states in all the adverse childhood experiences measured by the CDC. One in six children already have at least 3 ACES. A 2011 study reported in Child Abuse and Neglect stated that 51% of children with four or more ACE scores had learning and behavior problems in school compared with 3% of children with a zero ACE score. According to a subsequent study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults who had been exposed to multiple adverse childhood experiences or toxic stress in childhood were significantly more likely to be unemployed, living in poverty, and not to have graduated high school than adults who had zero adverse childhood experiences. Numerous nationally recognized medical practitioners and scientific experts believe that there is an ACEs epidemic in the U.S. It is the number one public health problem we face today and the major reason why so many children struggle in school and life.

There is hope for those who have experienced toxic stress caused by ACES. Research on building resilience has validated the creation of trauma-informed practices to help children build coping skills.  Creating trauma informed care programs in medical clinics and social service agencies helps identify high-risk children and families and provide effective treatment to manage stress from trauma and adversity. OSU Center for Integrative Research in Childhood Adversity under the leadership of Dr. Jennifer Grudo-Hays has discovered the power of Protective and Compensatory Experiences (PACEs) for buffering ACEs and building resilience. The most important PACE is a nurturing caring adult in a child’s life who can mitigate the impact of stress or ACEs.

As a community, we can systematically improve societal and medical practices to address the enduring effects of ACES and build resiliency. The brain is constantly creating new networks of synapses, and these protective experiences and environments can help adults as well as children heal.  According to a 2014 report of the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council of the National Academies, entitled “New Directions in Child Abuse and Neglect Research,” child abuse and neglect experiences resulted in higher risk for behavioral health problems throughout life. With trauma informed care and prevention approaches, child abuse and neglect can be both preventable and manageable.  

The Vision of Resilient Payne County is to create a compassionate and resilient community where children and families thrive. Over the past year RPC has started several successful resilience building child and family health related initiatives. RPC members worked with Senator AJ Griffin to author and promote Senate Bill 1517 Oklahoma Trauma Informed Care. This bill establishes a Trauma Informed Care Task Force to establish best practices regarding children and youth who have experienced trauma. The RPC initiated a successful statewide continuing education event, Raising Resilient Oklahomans Summit with the Potts Family Foundation and OU Pediatric Department Physicians. RPC members helped design and participate in a research project with OSU Center for Family Resilience conducting a voluntary ACES and PACES survey of parents whose children were patients at Stillwater Medical Center Pediatric Clinic. RPC volunteers worked with Dr. Laura Hubbs-Tait to organize an Active Parenting 0-5 years course in association with the Wondertorium and support of a Heart of Stillwater grant.

With the help of several hope-based agencies, RPC has organized ACES education programs for Stillwater Physicians and medical staff, Stillwater Public schools educators, preschool instructors, as well as public showings of the Resilience documentary.  Some health-related programs RPC plans to pursue include: expansion of Healthy Steps and access to evidence based home visitation for Payne County families. Healthy Steps and home visitation programs help all children achieve healthy child development, especially in vulnerable populations. These programs serve children and their families by preventing and buffering the effects of ACEs through support, education, screening, and referral of parents to necessary services.

If you would like to learn more or be involved in Resilience Payne County, please email Carolynn MacAllister at