August 1st 2013
CAMDEN - Tomatoes, broccoli, and peppers are flourishing this summer in the garden outside the UrbanPromise Wellness Center. But the most important crop may be peace of mind. "When you spend time in the garden, you're not thinking of anything else," says Rebecca Bryan, director of wellness programs at the faith-based nonprofit in East Camden. As she and I speak, eager fifth graders are harvesting and taste-testing the bounty from a lush patch of ground along Federal Street, where traffic spills from Route 130 and the city's cacophony rarely pauses. Peaceful it isn't.
But gardening, yoga classes, nutrition programs, and mindfulness exercises at the center - a joint venture of UrbanPromise and Haddonfield's First Presbyterian Church - aim to heal the effects of childhood trauma. Which a poor city like Camden produces in abundance. "Children who grow up here experience a great deal of stress, much more so than, say, kids in suburbia," says Bryan, a nurse-practitioner who lives in Haddonfield. She started work at UrbanPromise in September. "Households are primarily single mothers. Poverty is a huge issue. Violence is an issue - it's not uncommon for youths to have heard gunshots - and there's a lot of exposure to domestic violence.
"Often kids are in a home where someone is drinking or using drugs. Or they have a parent who ends up in jail," Bryan says. "There's just a huge amount of stress." The long-term physiological and developmental effects on individuals, as well as the public health impact on communities stemming from childhood trauma, were persuasively documented in the Adverse Childhood Experiences study. First conducted in 1998, the study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the managed-care consortium Kaiser Permanente is continuing. Meanwhile, developments in brain imaging and other medical technologies have bolstered the study's findings that childhood trauma can increase the likelihood of physical, mental, and social ills (obesity, substance abuse, poor academic performance) later on.
And as recognition of this reality grows - 100 professionals and community leaders attended a grassroots "Camden Trauma Summit" in May - "we're starting to come up with interventions that can make a difference," Bryan notes. What's called for, she says, is "a fundamental paradigm shift" among professionals who deal with troubled kids. "Instead of saying, 'What's wrong with you?' we need to ask, 'What happened to you?' " Bryan is mentoring Briana Shephard, a soft-spoken 16-year-old who will soon be a senior at UrbanPromise Academy. The high school is one of several educational, development, and employment programs through which UrbanPromise serves about 640 Camden youths annually. Shephard, whose father has been incarcerated, had difficulties in public school. Now she pours her heart out to Bryan, and in the poetry she regularly writes.
"I've heard gunshots and everything" in the city's neighborhoods, she says, her voice matter-of-fact. "I don't really feel safe walking by myself." But Shephard feels quite safe at UrbanPromise, where she has begun to thrive. I ask Bryan about critics who say wellness and mindfulness (both of which I heartily endorse) are no match for older concepts - like bootstrapping one's way up from unfortunate circumstances. "I would like to take a person who thinks that the answer is to get a job . . . and put them in North Camden. Just for a week," she says. "Then let me ask them how they feel."
Written by: Kevin Riordan, Inquirer Columnist