Ruthann Howell, CEO/President, Wellspring Family Services
The following is a transcript of the remarks given by Wellspring's CEO/President, Ruthann Howell, at the 2017 Powerful Change Luncheon, March 16, 2017.
I want you to picture this in your mind: Ending the multi-generational cycle of family homelessness in Seattle, and beyond.
It’s a powerful thought! Can it happen? I’m here to tell you: the answer is YES. We can end this cycle of family homelessness. Today, I’d like to share four key areas that guide Wellspring on this ambitious but doable path.
The first is the Wellspring Focus.
Our plan focuses on children. Everything we know intellectually, believe in our hearts and that we practice each day at Wellspring points to this proven approach.
When you focus on children, you work to eliminate the traumatic environments and situations they face. In turn, you grow their capacity for self-awareness, empathy and confidence. You provide a pathway to resilience—an ability that will serve them for the rest of their life. Children are the heart of families. By focusing Wellspring’s work there, we help to create lasting change.
The second key area is The Science.
Groundbreaking discoveries in neuroscience have given the Wellspring team profound new ways to better understand the children who are at the core of the work we do. In our Early Learning Center, brain science gives our staff the understanding and tools to help young children traumatized by homelessness, domestic violence or extreme poverty. These tools help our Wellspring kids to move beyond the impact of those childhood traumas. New discoveries about the brain prove that supportive and consistent relationships with other children and with their teachers actually rewire how a child thinks and acts.
What exactly does that mean you might ask?
Science has proved that these positive relationships mitigate and buffer their developing brains from the toxic trauma they have experienced. Science has proved this actually changes the chemistry of their young brains. This is powerful and it works. We see it every day at Wellspring.
Try to imagine what it’s like for these children. They have experienced homelessness, poverty and—sometimes—the trauma of seeing one parent abused by another.
Imagine this: what if I handed you a jumbled list of 25 separate tasks. I want you to complete all of them in 5 minutes! Pat your head, sing the national anthem, complete these math problems, and read the first 10 pages in this book. Now imagine being asked to complete all these tasks while you are being chased by a large, scary, barking dog. How would you feel? Imagine having to wrestle with this jumble of stimulation, overwhelming fear and anxiety everywhere you went, every day of your life! This is a taste of what a child feels when their brain develops in the traumatic world of homelessness, hunger, domestic violence or a chronically stressed out parent. But there is hope! Children in Wellspring’s Early Learning Center learn new, positive ways to manage their world and behavior. And, as they do, their brains are—literally—rewired in a way that transcends the trauma they have experienced.
This is lasting change!
The third key area is Wellspring’s Two-Generation approach.
We like to call this, “The Wellspring Difference.”
I’ve explained that we start with the child at the center of our work. But we intentionally and strategically involve the parents or caregiver. And we’ve found that many of those parents or caregivers had similar traumatic experiences when they were children themselves. Our experience shows that while powerful, there is only so much that one teacher or a caseworker can do for a child. Real and lasting change involves creating so-called concentric circles of support — support that envelops and embraces each family. We provide personally tailored plans and services to address the core challenges within a family. What we are doing here is an approach that has evolved from “What’s wrong with you?” to a science-based question, “What happened to you?”
We look to address these root causes of challenge and instability. Then we work to strengthen parent/child relationships. I cannot stress enough the importance of this two-generation approach.
Step by step, one family at a time, we are breaking the tragic cycle of family homelessness. Today’s children will NOT be tomorrow’s homeless parents.
Our fourth focus area and—in many ways—the most important is Relationships.
I like to think of what we do as a combination of Science and The Heart. My previous comments centered around the Science. Now comes the Heart part!
Every family we work with is guided by and affirmed at every step of their journey by Wellspring’s incredible team. Our case managers, our teachers and our counselors forge amazing relationships based on trust and accountability with children and their parents. In the classroom, when so-called buttons get pushed and patience is tested—our staff know how to deal with it-and don’t give up. They understand why children—and even their parents—are acting the way they do. Our teachers and Wellspring team understand how to decode the behavior and focus on the strengths. Our team stays engaged with our clients for as long as it takes. They know that building healthy and supportive relationships takes time. They understand it’s the foundation of the work we do.
I’d like to tell you about Carlos. He’s a 4-year old in our Early Learning Center. His family was homeless for six months. They were living in their car because his mom fled an abusive relationship. At Wellspring, his mom received services and support to find housing and move forward with her life. She received support to strengthen her parenting skills and build her relationship with her son.
When Carlos entered our Early Learning Center, he was angry, confused, and scared. Every day at the ELC was tough for him. He always seemed on the verge of boiling over-and often did. He had very little ability to recognize and self-regulate his feelings. His Wellspring teachers understood why Carlos was behaving the way he did. They spent weeks helping him identify his feelings. The teachers also worked with his mom to provide structure and support at home.
His teachers also made sure his mom was finding support for herself. They made sure she was practicing self-care.
After a short time, Carlos began talking about his feelings! A major breakthrough came one day: Carlos had a massive meltdown in the classroom, His teacher, backed by her skills and training, talked him through the meltdown.
Soon he was calm. She then asked him, “What do you think is going on inside of you? What are you feeling?”
Carlos responded, “I feel like I’m on fire inside of me.”
His teacher asked, “What do you think you could do to put out that fire?”
Carlos gave that some thought. Then he said, “I could get a drink of water.”
In the weeks that followed, with the help of his trusted teacher, working with him mom and other layers of Wellspring support, Carlos was able to ‘put out the fire’ when his insides started feeling hot! He learned to identify what he was feeling. And his teachers were supportive when he would ask to get a glass of water! He began to regulate his behavior. Carlos learned that HE could control himself. Today, Carlos remains a work in progress. But he’s on a good path!
So I’ve shared with you Wellspring’s four focus areas:
· A child-centered and holistic family approach.
· The integration of brain science principles.
· Our two-generation approach.
· And the relationships forged by the amazingly talented Wellspring team.
With this approach, we are finding our path forward. But we’re not on that path alone. We are walking that path with YOU! And together, we can end the cycle of family homelessness in our community.
As you leave here today, I’d encourage you to think about Carlos when you see a glass of water. It’s a powerful reminder of the little boy and his network of support — teachers, therapists, parent educators, housing specialists and supporters like YOU. Together we have found a way to help Carlos put out his fire. It’s a vivid reminder that we can help Carlos find a new path beyond the traumatic effects of homelessness.
Breaking the multi-generational cycle of family homelessness in our community. That’s what brings us here today.
AND because we’re all in this together—That’s WHY I believe we are moving even closer to forever breaking this cycle.