Leveraging collaboration and brain science to end cycles of poverty and trauma at CUPS-Calgary

CUPS_DSC00453.jpgThe Calgary Urban Project Society, or CUPS, was founded in 1989 with a vision to help people overcome the challenges of poverty and attain brighter futures. Over the past couple of years, with their involvement in the “Change in Mind” initiative, CUPS has updated their approach to incorporate the brain science about trauma and resilience to focus more specifically on helping adults and families in Calgary living with the adversity of poverty and traumatic events to build resilience in 4 key areas:

  • Economic Resilience
  • Social-Emotional Resilience
  • Health Resilience
  • Developmental Resilience

“Many of our clients have huge trauma burdens – and for those who have children, we know the ACEs research shows this impacts their kids as well,” Tanya Leavitt, Mental Health Program Manager, explains.  So CUPS has specifically incorporated a focus on trauma-informed care into their strategic plan and made it an organizational priority.

They have a Trauma-Informed Care (TIC) Team at CUPS with representatives from every department and every program and service in the agency. Their TIC Team also includes five clients who have been participants in various CUPS programs and services, and who represent diverse perspectives in terms of ethnicity, gender and age.

The TIC Team focuses on agency policies and procedures, and how to ensure that everything they do at CUPS is trauma-informed and utilizes the brain science around trauma and developing resilience.

TIC Team members serve a one-year term, then rotate off so other agency staff and clients can become part of the team. Tanya explains, “Our goal is that eventually every single employee here will have served on the TIC team at some point.”

With 166 staff members and 480 volunteers, CUPS served 9,364 clients last year with services that include a primary care healthcare clinic; a women’s health clinic; a dental clinic; mental health care services; substance abuse supports; parenting education; an early intervention child development centre with full day pre-school and kindergarten that includes on-site healthcare, psychological services, speech and language services, occupational therapy and physiotherapy; income and financial supports; education, skills &  training services; food and nutrition services; legal advocacy & justice services; and three housing programs for individuals and families experiencing homelessness (these programs include case management and graduated rent subsidies).

Through close collaboration with many partners, they serve as a “one-stop shop” to offer an integrated set of services that address many of the barriers and needs people living in poverty are facing.

Amanda Rae Storteboom, CUPS Operations Manager, explains that when a client first walks in the door, CUPS staff walk the client through an initial conversation to complete a “Resiliency Matrix” identifying the characteristics the individual possesses across four domains of resilience: economic, social-emotional, health and developmental. “This helps identify all of the different resources and services that may benefit that client,” she adds. Historically, clients would come to CUPS for one particular service or program, but other challenges or barriers in their lives could end up de-railing the progress they might have made through that program or service. They used to have over ten different entry points into CUPS programs and services.  The Resiliency Matrix allows them to get a comprehensive look at all the major aspects of the client’s life, at a single point of entry, so they can take a holistic approach to assisting the client across multiple life domains.

biopsychosocial+model.jpgThis holistic approach is mirrored in the mandatory full-day trauma and resilience training that all CUPS staff must complete.”We’ve basically taken the biopsychosocial model of health, and pulled it apart for this training,” Tanya explains. The training covers trauma, how it can play out in people’s lives, the brain science about trauma and resilience, and scenarios and practical information about what is and is NOT helpful for people to be able to build resilience, overcome adversity and reach their potential. The staff training also covers vicarious and secondary trauma and self-care for staff.

Tanya developed their staff trauma training curriculum using resources from SAMHSA, the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative’s free 30-hour “Brain Story certification” training (available to anyone around the world at no cost!),  Alberta Health Services (here’s a link to an entire issue of their Apple magazine devoted to brain science, trauma and resilience) and the Government of British Columbia’s guide to trauma-informed practice.

The results at CUPS have been impressive. In their housing programs alone, CUPS housed 703 adults and children last year. 95% of the households remained successfully and stably housed or graduated out of the program and no longer require subsidy. Participants have reported significant reductions in their use of public systems, including a 80% decrease in EMS use, 27% reduction in ER visits, and a 76% reduction in interactions with police and the justice system.

Measuring all of their results, specifically related to overcoming trauma and building resilience, has presented some challenges, though.They’ve had to work out information-sharing agreements and client consent/release forms across various programs and services. They’ve had to address issues with the databases and computerized systems they use to capture the right data. And they had to develop a common, comprehensive intake process for every client, regardless of what services or programs the client may have initially come to CUPS for (using the “Resiliency Matrix” mentioned earlier).  They are capturing the scores from that initial Resiliency Matrix assessment, then re-assessing clients every six months to look at gains in resiliency across economic, social-emotional, health and developmental domains.

Both Tanya and Amanda Rae describe what’s happening at CUPS around trauma-informed care and building resiliency as a “work in progress.” Ultimately, their vision is to help the people they serve to end the cycle of poverty and trauma for themselves and their families.


Trauma-informed mentoring at Big Brothers Big Sisters in Calgary


At Big Brothers Big Sisters of Calgary and Area, Karen Orser and Cynthia Wild are on a mission:  to make sure all of their staff and their mentors (“Bigs”) understand the brain science that explains how the behaviors of the children they serve (“Littles”) may tell a story of other things going on in the child’s life, including traumatic experiences, toxic stress, and adversity. That knowledge is foundational to their focus on trauma-informed mentoring at BBBS Calgary.


Cynthia, Director of Service Delivery, explains, “It’s been important for us to differentiate between ‘trauma-informed’ and ‘trauma-specific’. At BBBS, we don’t do trauma-specific care or treatment. We don’t do therapy, we don’t focus on the abuse someone has experienced. Our approach is a relational-based intervention that’s trauma-informed. This means recognizing the role trauma has played in the life of that young person and helping our mentors think about and re-frame the behavior they may see with their “Littles”. Instead of thinking “What’s wrong with you?” we want our mentors to think “What has happened to you?” We can’t take the child’s behavior personally.  We want our mentors to engage in specific, practical activities with the child that can help to build the child’s brain architecture.”

They’re developing activities based on Bruce Perry’s “Regulate, Relate and Reason” framework, resources from the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, and the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative (AFWI) “Core Story of Brain Development” resources.

Trauma-informed mentoring is changing BBBS Calgary’s organizational narratives in a few key areas:

  • the WHY of mentoring: because relationships with caring, responsive adults (mentors) can help build brain architecture in kids
  • WHAT responsive mentoring looks like: “Bigs” are responsive to “Littles” when they notice and respond to their verbal and non-verbal cues
  • WHO they mentor: a shift away from “any child who needs a mentor gets a mentor” to “we serve children and youth facing adversity”
  • HOW they mentor: being intentional about training mentors to engage in activities with their mentees that build and strengthen Executive Function and Self-Regulation skills

CALGARY_BBBS_Karen-Orser-Headshot-300x300.jpgKaren, BBBS Calgary’s President and CEO, explains, “The focus on trauma-informed mentoring has given us a new language, new resources, and new ways to think about and talk about what’s going on with kids.” She adds that it has also required on-going conversations with staff, board members, volunteers and funders. Those conversations have raised challenging questions like:

  • Are we getting too clinical?
  • Will volunteers not want to volunteer if we’re talking about brain science?
  • Will it seem too hard [for mentors to incorporate brain research into their day to day interactions with kids]?

Both Karen and Cynthia are relatively new to their positions at BBBS. They had worked together previously at the YWCA, serving people experiencing homelessness, addiction, and mental health challenges. There, they saw how trauma played out in the lives of those clients. And in their first year here at BBBS, they’re working to develop an agency culture that isn’t afraid to take risks and to take a new look at long-established agency practices and policies, making changes when necessary.

BBBS Calgary is breaking new ground for Canada’s national Big Brothers Big Sisters organization, and the national office is talking with Karen and Cynthia about how to incorporate brain science into the standard national training given to all BBBS mentors.

And BBBS Calgary is part of a larger three-year initiative with 15 agencies in Alberta and across the United States called Change in Mind: Applying Neurosciences to Revitalize Communities. Tomorrow, I’ll be meeting with people from CUPS, another of the agencies here in Calgary that’s involved in the Change in Mind initiative. So I’ll post more about Change in Mind as well as CUPS after tomorrow’s meeting.

Karen, Cynthia and their BBBS Calgary team are firmly committed and deeply invested in taking a trauma-informed approach based on the brain research, and they see it as essential to successful intervention with the children and youth they serve in their community. There’s no doubt their investment will reap big benefits for the children, their families, the BBBS mentors, and their entire community.


The Trauma-Informed Communities: Part 2 – and Glacier NP photos!

Here’s a preview of the other trauma-informed communities I’ll be visiting:

Coeur D’Alene, ID: Over the past couple of years, several professionals in Coeur D’Alene and the Northern Idaho schools, mental health systems, healthcare systems, and juvenile justice systems realized each was interested in and looking at the ACEs research and its impact on the people they served. They got together and organized a day-long conference on ACEs and trauma in 2015 to kick off Mental Health Awareness month, and over 400 people attended. Since then, with some help from the folks in nearby Walla Walla, WA, they’ve been working to engage the broader community to develop a trauma-informed community-wide approach.

Calgary, Alberta, Canada: They started a province-wide initiative in 2007 by convening a 3-year series of educational symposia. They invited 100 people to each of the 5-day symposia, and invited nationally & internationally recognized experts on trauma and ACEs research to speak. At each of their symposia, each attendee had to commit to taking the learnings back to their agencies/communities, put them into practice and report back on the results. They’ve focused on the brain research behind trauma, toxic stress, and resilience and have created this excellent 4-minute video that explains it really clearly:

You can find other videos in their series on brain development here

So, these are the communities I’ll be visiting and where I’ll be meeting with lots of different people “doing the work” of trauma-informed care and developing a trauma-informed community. I’ll post updates after each visit.

In the meantime, Hannah and I have gotten to spend some great mother-daughter time together at Glacier National Park – here are some photos!

Lots more to come…thanks for reading!

The Journey & Photos-Part 1: Portland, OR to Columbia Falls, MT

This trip to visit trauma-informed communities is the culmination of a year-long journey I’ve been on, to explore childhood trauma and the myriad ways trauma can impact people’s lives.

I’ve been able to do this thanks to the Lancaster County Community Foundation’s Baldwin Leadership program.  The Baldwin program supports both the personal and professional development of recipients, with the idea that our Baldwin projects will benefit us as individuals, as well as benefit the community.

Part of my exploration this year has been into the multi-generational history of addiction and related trauma among the mothers and daughters in my own family. My mother, my maternal grandmother, and my maternal great-grandmother all struggled their entire lives with serious addiction, and as a result, the mother-daughter relationships through three generations were deeply fractured and painful.  Thankfully, my own daughter, Hannah, and I have been able to break that cycle, and we have a healthy, strong, deeply loving mother-daughter relationship. So it has been especially meaningful and special that she is traveling with me for the first week of this journey.

She and I spent 12 hours driving yesterday, departing around 6:15am (sorry, Hannah!) from Portland, OR. We headed east on I-84, through the Columbia River Gorge (where I’ll be meeting with folks doing trauma-informed community work next week) in rain and fog and early morning rush-hour traffic.

We got off the Interstate at Mosier and took Historic Route 30 up through Mayer State Park to Rowena Crest Viewpoint. The rain stopped long enough for us to get out and take a few photos, which you can see here.

Then we continued east on I-84 before angling northeast into Washington state, where we made a short stop in Walla Walla, WA just to get a feel for the town. (I’ll also be returning there next week for meetings with folks doing trauma-informed work in their schools, healthcare and justice systems, and elsewhere).

After a hearty late morning brunch in Walla Walla at a joint called “Bacon & Eggs” (how could we pass THAT up?), we continued driving up through Spokane, to Coeur D’Alene (another of next week’s trauma-informed community stops), and across the panhandle of Idaho, then into Montana.

We are now in Columbia Falls, MT, just outside of Glacier National Park, where we spent today hiking and exploring on the west side of Glacier, taking an 8-mile hike from Lake McDonald up “Going-to-the-Sun Road”. Tomorrow we plan to explore the east side of Glacier, up to St Mary’s. I’ll post photos from Glacier tomorrow….

The Trauma-Informed Communities: Overview-Part 1

The trauma-informed communities I’ll be visiting over the next 3 weeks are:

  • Portland, OR
  • The Dalles, OR
  • Columbia River Gorge, OR
  • Walla Walla, WA
  • Coeur D’Alene, ID
  • Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Here are a few overview tidbits about the Oregon and Washington communities. I’ll post brief overviews about Coeur D’Alene and Calgary later this week, then once I’ve met with the various people in each place, I’ll post separate detailed updates about each community.

Portland, OR: Portland State University is serving as the lead agency for “Trauma-Informed Oregon”, a  statewide collaboration to promote and sustain trauma-informed care across child- and family-serving systems. They started in 2014 and expanded in 2015 to include adult-serving behavioral health systems. Portland State serves as a centralized source of information and resources and coordinates and provides training for healthcare and related systems. They work with state agencies, state and local providers, communities, family and youth organizations, and diverse constituents to bring many voices and perspectives to the table to learn from one another and to advocate for informed policies and practices to promote healing and support well-being for all of Oregon’s children, adults, and families.

The Dalles, OR: Their efforts started in 2008 with a 5-year SAMHSA Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant. The grant specified that law enforcement, mental health, juvenile justice and education agencies work together to make schools safer and students healthier.   This city of 13,000 is the first in the nation to seek certification from the Sanctuary Institute— (created by Sandra Bloom at Drexel University), a model of organizational change that challenges every part of the community to examine and remake itself through an understanding of trauma..

Columbia River Gorge, OR: The Multnomah County Department of Community Justice is incorporating a trauma-informed approach into their juvenile & adult criminal justice and reentry systems. While I’m visiting them, I’ll be attending a day-long forum on trauma-informed criminal justice that happened to be scheduled for the same timeframe as my visit!

Walla Walla, WA: Their “Trauma-informed community” effort started in 2008 when local non-profit executive Teri Barila attended a conference where she learned about ACEs. She came back to Walla Walla & organized a community meeting in early 2008 and brought Dr Robert Anda in for a two-and-a-half-hour seminar.  165 people came. Walla Walla is featured in the documentaries “Paper Tigers” and “Resilience”. Walla Walla has a population of 32,000 people. They have 3 colleges, yet one out of four of their children live in poverty, 65% of its residents have not attended college, and gangs and drugs are common.

Again, these are a few initial bits of info. Much more to come! Stay tuned!

Mending with Grace

(Here’s the sermon I offered at Grandview United Methodist Church in Lancaster, PA on Sunday, April 2, 2017 on the subject of trauma, shame and healing. There’s an audio recording of it here)

One of my personal heroes, Father Greg Boyle, of Homeboy Industries has said,


But it occurs to me that to achieve a real sense of KINSHIP with those who are marginalized requires a deep understanding and acceptance of our own imperfections and brokenness or, as one of Father Greg’s “homies,” former gang member Jose, says,


My work as Director of the RMO, a prisoner reentry initiative, is with people who carry numerous wounds: addiction, mental illness, poverty, violence, the dehumanization and stripping of dignity that goes with incarceration, not to mention the additional wounds of shame, stigma, and being judged, labeled and ostracized by the community as “criminals”, “offenders”, “ex-cons”.

For longer than I’d like to admit, I had been operating under the delusion that to serve them effectively, I needed to be a pillar of strength and model of someone who had things pretty well figured out.

The core messages of my childhood were: 




Those messages steeped me in what author and shame researcher Brene Brown calls the “myth of self sufficiency.” In her book, “The Gifts of Imperfection”, Brown writes,


I finally came to understand that in my work, I was often attaching judgment to “helping” people coming out of prison because I had not come to a full understanding of my own brokenness and my own need for help. And I had to make the painful admission that the reason I had not done so was SHAME.

Some of my shame comes from having grown up with a mother who struggled with addiction and, later, mental health issues, and the pain and trauma that created for me throughout my life. And because I had not done the necessary inner work to transform my pain, I transmitted it to others around me by being judgmental and critical, with a “holier-than-thou” arrogance. I hurt people because I was hurting.

Those childhood messages: “Don’t air your dirty laundry” and “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” meant that, for years, I didn’t recognize or acknowledge, and certainly didn’t talk about, any of this. When I was a kid, our family did go to church regularly on Sunday mornings, all cleaned up and dressed in our finest.  But even at church – in fact, I now think, ESPECIALLY at church – we kept silent about what was going on with my Mom’s addiction behind the closed doors of our home.

This morning, there are many people, many families, in many churches, in many places – even right here in this place – who are sitting in silent shame, over things going on in our lives, how we feel about ourselves and the kind of people we are, about sinful and shameful things we have done that have hurt others or ourselves, about things our loved ones have done. And there are many additional people who feel such deep shame that they feel like they aren’t even worthy to come into a church.

(This is the “squirmy part of this sermon” . . . but that’s okay . . . stay with me here . . . )

Brene Brown says that shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives:


Her research shows that:


In other words . . .


We are afraid to admit or let anyone see the broken places in our lives. We may think, “If others knew this about me, would they still accept and love me?”

But here’s the good news: There IS a way for us to overcome those fears and address our shame, so we can heal and move forward.

The scientific research shows that the best way to address shame is to bravely bring it out into the light of day, to acknowledge what’s broken in our lives, to name it, TALK about it with trusted others who will offer us compassionate listening, empathy, and forgiveness and to ASK FOR HELP.

We can’t do it alone. Here’s the secret: There’s NO SUCH THING as pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. It’s a myth. We need each other.

Interestingly, what the research shows will help us deal with our shame are the same things that our Christian tradition teaches us: the things we know as:


Pastor Andrea said in the first of her sermons in this series that the CHURCH has a vital role to play in healing shame and creating healthy community, because of the church’s unique offering of GRACE: the central tenet of our faith as Christians and the focus of this morning’s lectionary texts.


and in the passage from Romans:


These promises of God’s grace and forgiveness, of God’s abundant love, despite our sinfulness, our brokenness, are what give us HOPE. God’s abundant love is so much stronger than our fear of admitting to the brokenness in our lives.

Another of my personal heroes, Bryan Stevenson, author of the book Just Mercy, writes,


One of the things I’ve learned through my work with the RMO is that there’s pretty extensive evidence that a majority of the people in our prisons and jails have had a history of trauma in their lives – often when they were children. They’ve experienced emotional, physical and sexual abuse, emotional and physical neglect. Many have grown up in households with a parent who had addictions or mental illness. Many have witnessed domestic violence and other forms of violence. Many have lost a parent to death, abandonment, or incarceration.

It isn’t that these experiences excuse what they have done to harm others, and we may struggle to feel compassion for THEIR PAIN, asking what about the pain THEY have caused?

And that’s absolutely a fair question, with, I admit, no simple answers. And yet, our common humanity and our Christian teaching compel us to recognize THEIR SACRED WORTH rather than judging and shaming them; to EMBRACE them; to truly LOVE them as our NEIGHBORS.

I like what the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote:


Much of what we do with brokenness in our own lives, as well as the lives of people with addictions, mental illness, and those in our criminal justice system, is like using an aspirin and an ice pack for a broken leg. While aspirin and an ice pack might temporarily relieve the pain and reduce the swelling, the TRUTH is that the leg is still broken – and if we never PROPERLY mend what’s broken inside of us, it may continue to “cripple” us.

But I’d like to close this morning by offering a different vision for mending the broken places in all of our lives.

In Japanese culture, beautiful pottery is an important part of everyday life – pottery bowls, plates, cups and vases.


When a bowl or vase or cup or plate gets chipped, or cracked . . .


or even completely broken into pieces . . . 


rather than throw it away, they have a beautiful traditional practice called:


or as it’s sometimes called, “mending with gold.”

What they do is mix up a lacquer to which they ADD precious metals – usually GOLD DUST –


Then they take the broken pieces of that bowl or vase or plate, and they carefully and lovingly apply the golden lacquer along the broken edges and join the pieces back together.


Their philosophy is that when something happens that damages a piece of pottery, it should NOT be tossed aside or thrown away as worthless. Instead it is WORTH taking the time and care to mend what’s broken.


They treat the breakage and the process of repairing it as simply part of the history of that object, instead of something to be hidden or disguised.


They believe that chips, cracks, even completely breaking into pieces – these are all just natural parts of life. 


Not only is there no attempt to hide the cracks and brokenness, but the repair is literally illuminated. 


And because they have used precious metals (GOLD DUST!) . . .


to mend the broken places . . .


. . . the resulting piece is considered even more valuable and beautiful than the original.


We are not called to be perfect. We ARE called to be light and love to one another. Acknowledging the cracks in our own lives, and letting the light get in, can help us to heal our own brokenness, and give us the capacity to be compassionate, wounded healers in kinship with others.

Slide27Here’s what the research says about what we need to HEAL from the trauma of our own inner brokenness:   We need:

  • Opportunities to share our stories with empathetic listeners
  • Meaningful connection with others
  • Support from trusted others
  • Spiritual connections: a sense of something larger than ourselves
  • Opportunities to participate in social activities
  • Opportunities to be of service to others
  • Healthy, meaningful rituals
  • Opportunities for fun, play, laughter
  • Opportunities for creative endeavors
  • Opportunities to connect with nature

Amazingly, the CHURCH offers EVERY ONE of these things – and all of these things foster the kind of KINSHIP that Father Greg Boyle talks about.

In Jane’s Dutton’s sermon a couple of weeks ago – she highlighted the repetition in New Testament stories of the words: “Us”, “Our” and “We” – this is the language of KINSHIP. And I love that the word “Kintsugi” is so similar to “Kinship.”


Grace is like that lacquer mixed with gold dust – God’s grace can mend the broken places in ALL of our lives, making us whole again, even more valuable and beautiful than before.

And through our compassion, love, empathy, and golden offerings of grace to others, we can be instruments of God’s ultimate transformation, to make gentle a bruised and broken world.

SO, I echo Pastor Andrea’s call to all of us in her first sermon in this series: to live into who God created us to be – wholehearted people who make up a grace-filled AND grace-giving body called the CHURCH.

Mending the chipped and cracked and broken places in our own and one another’s lives with God’s golden, and amazing grace.


What IS a trauma-informed community, anyway?

What is a trauma-informed community? One definition, from The Wilson Foundation, in Rochester, NY, is: “A strategic approach that links all community sectors together around the effects of trauma, while preventing gaps in services for clients.”

But I like this description from an article about Tarpon Springs, Florida, one of the first communities in the US to declare itself a trauma-informed community:

“Being a trauma-informed community means that Tarpon Spring has made a commitment to engage people from all sectors—education, juvenile justice, faith, housing, health care and business—in common goals. The first is to understand how personal adversity affects the community’s well being. The second is to institute resilience-building practices so that people, organizations and systems no longer traumatize already traumatized people and instead contribute to building a healthy community.”

As I visit trauma-informed communities in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and in Calgary, I’ll likely learn additional definitions. Most of the places I’ll be visiting have been focused on trauma-informed care for 6-8 years or longer. So there will be much we can learn from them.

A few weeks ago, I convened a meeting of 22 people from Community Action Partnership of Lancaster CountySchool District of LancasterCOBYS Family ServicesAssetsLancaster County Community FoundationBenchmark Construction Company, Inc.Advoz: formerly Center for Community PeacemakingLancaster Housing Opportunity PartnershipLancaster County Drug & Alcohol CommissionUnited Way of Lancaster County, PADanene SoraceNorman Bristol Colon for Mayor of Lancaster, and others to discuss how to move toward making Lancaster County a trauma-informed community. I asked for their ideas about what questions to ask and what information to gather from the trauma-informed communities I’ll be visiting. Here are a few of their recommended questions:

  • How have communities used their own local/regional demographics to guide their trauma-informed community initiatives?
  • How have they addressed needs for cultural competency to ensure the broadest possible inclusion of all persons and all stakeholder groups?
  • How did they go about getting buy-in from a wide range of stakeholders and potential funders?
  • What barriers, roadblocks and resistances have they encountered, from whom, and how have they attempted to address these (either successfully or not)?
  • What trauma education approaches, tools, curricula, and other resources have they used? What has worked? Not worked?
  • How are they integrating trauma knowledge into all different sectors of the community? (healthcare, education, human services, community development, housing, juvenile justice, criminal justice, business, faith community, etc).
  • What are the metrics and outcomes they are using to measure and track results of their efforts?

The group provided other input, ideas and insights – and I’ll share more in future blog posts. Meanwhile, feel free to contact me with YOUR ideas and suggestions.

I depart for this 3-week trip on Easter Sunday….stay tuned for more details in upcoming posts.