Dr. Jean Clinton, a child psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry, outlines the connection between the stress response to an adverse childhood experience and poorer health later in life for a Collective Impact audience brought together by Guelph CHC.

If you want to go upstream to make a difference to factors that could affect a child’s health and wellbeing for the rest of their lives, it doesn’t make sense to paddle alone. That’s why Guelph Community Health Centre is using a Collective Impact approach to address a complex social issue that has direct impacts on children’s and families’ health.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (or ACEs, for short) is a term given to all types of abuse, neglect, or other traumatic experiences that occur when individuals are under the age of 18. Although research in this area is relatively new, a groundbreaking study – conducted between 1995 and 1997 with 17,000 people – discovered profound and strong connections between having ACEs and poorer mental and physical health. The study tied a person’s ACE “score” – or the number of ACEs they had – to the likelihood of a range of chronic diseases and illnesses later in life, such as cancer, diabetes, stroke, COPD, and depression.

On June 23, Guelph CHC, in partnership with other local service providers, hosted an event focused on ACEs, where Dr. Jean Clinton, a child psychiatrist and professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences at McMaster, spelled out the connection between ACEs and poor health explicitly, focusing on the developing brain’s reactions and adaptations to stressful stimuli. Dr. Clinton’s talk was part of a call to action in Guelph to develop a comprehensive plan to prevent and mitigate the effects of ACEs. Dr. Clinton also drove home to her audience that ACEs are not our destiny. Her message? Yes, there is hope. But you will need to take action in many different ways. Resilience can be built – in communities, in neighbourhoods, in families, in individuals – but it takes love, building connections, and giving people different tools and strategies to cope with stress, Clinton noted.

The rest of the day was focused on building a Collective Impact approach to ACEs in Guelph and Wellington County, by developing and strengthening the partnerships of the Toward Common Ground coalition. Stakeholders – including Guelph CHC, the Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition, the local Public Health Unit, Family and Children Services, the Canadian Mental Health Association, municipal and provincial politicians, the local police department, and other local leaders and change-makers – put their heads together to develop new ideas for how to best support families and individuals at risk for ACEs, and each other as service providers.

One great idea that’s already making a difference is Guelph CHC’s Parent Outreach Worker Program (POW). The POW program supports families and children in many different ways to reduce the risk of ACEs, while trying to mitigate and build resilience around the effects of adverse experiences that people have already had.

“My work could involve providing one-on-one support to a mom who is isolated,” says Katie Davis, one of three Parent Outreach Workers embedded in three different neighbourhood groups in Guelph. “Once a relationship is developed, I could refer the mom to a local group coffee hour program where she has a chance to meet and chat with other parents in the neighbourhood, which can often lead to friendships and support for parents from other parents as well as their children.”

(Click on the image above for the full POW Evaluation Report.)

The POW program aims to: increase social connection; improve access to basic needs such as food, clothing, and school supplies; create greater awareness of and access to formal services and supports, such as mental health counselling, legal aid, and Ontario Works; and increase community safety and connections overall.

As Davis points out, though, it’s the local, neighbourhood-based approach that has allowed for trust to be built between isolated parents and the providers reaching out to help them.

“Parents feel comfortable accessing services where they feel a sense of familiarity,” Davis says. “Being embedded in the neighbourhood group, I can connect and offer a warm hand off to parents to the programs offered by the group. An example would be connecting a mom with Guelph CHC’s Garden Fresh Box program.”

Davis says she knows it’s the relationships she’s been able to foster that have led to the great early results yielded by the POW program.

“It takes time to build relationships. Parents come from a variety of backgrounds with trauma and high ACE scores, and they are often distrusting,” Davis notes. “But once a relationship has developed parents are more willing to engage in services and programs in the neighbourhood as well in the city with support from myself.”

Here's a preliminary Evaluation Report of the Parent Outreach Worker program for more background. The POW program is part of the Nurturing Neighbourhoods Initiative in Guelph.