ABINGDON, Va. — More than 500 educators and childhood service providers from across Virginia gathered in Abingdon on Thursday for the first Rural Summit for Childhood Success.

Organized by the United Way of Southwest Virginia, the daylong event offered a series of workshops and speakers dealing with all aspects of identifying and addressing childhood traumas. Among the keynote speakers were Virginia first lady Pamela Northam, Secretary of Health and Human Resources Dr. Daniel Carey and bestselling author Jeannette Walls, whose personal story of overcoming childhood poverty — “The Glass Castle” — sold more than 5 million copies and was made into a major motion picture.

“We believe that all children should have access to opportunities they need to succeed no matter who they are or where they live,” Northam told the morning session. “The experiences that children face in the early years of their lives have a profound impact on their development and life outcomes. Challenges such as trauma, food insecurity, insufficient early childhood learning experiences can all affect mental, emotional and physical development. … What happens in early childhood doesn’t stay in early childhood.”

On the Record, Ep. 76: "Rural Summit for Childhood Success"

Northam, an educator and former pediatric therapist, remains an advocate for improving early childhood education.

“It’s so important. The first few critical years of a child’s life where fully 90 percent of the brain is developed even before a child gets to kindergarten,” she said. “We’re really highlighting the importance of these critical first few years and the people that provide care for our children no matter who they are or where they’re from. We want all children to have access to the tools they need to succeed.”

During her remarks, Northam described a series of state grants designed to expand services to children — many that go directly to localities.

“Children face so many different challenges and some are unique to each area,” Northam said. “Sometimes, it’s transportation, sometimes it’s multiple languages. That’s why we’re really excited as a state to empower local communities because no one knows their challenges than they themselves. So if we can empower them to apply their own unique approaches to those funds then we know they’ll get what they need from the people who can really deliver it in a meaningful way.”

One pilot program, Carey said, shifts transportation of people under a temporary detention order for mental evaluation or treatment from law enforcement — which can be traumatic for the individual or family members — to a less visible, less intimidating service.

The new state budget includes funds for people to work with families in crisis with a high likelihood of needing foster care.

“If you can step in and provide support — not just for children but for the parents, a whole family — that’s a great opportunity. And it demands that services are evidence-based and trauma-informed,” Carey said.

In addition to funding and pilot programs, Carey said his office is helping oversee a review of all services to make sure they meet current needs.

“We need to do an inventory of all services we provide, whether we provide it as a state or contract it through other providers and ask the question, are these services trauma-informed? Are they taking into account early childhood events? Because it affects adolescents, and it affects adults,” Carey said. “It is a powerful predictor of the likelihood of substance abuse disorder or profound depression or other serious illnesses. Making sure that all of the services we provide are consistent with trauma-informed principles is important.”

Travis Staton, president and CEO of the United Way of Southwest Virginia, said Thursday’s event was designed to better understand a wide range of issues that can affect children and families.

“We’ve been working with state officials trying to implement some systematic change in Southwest Virginia with the realization we’ve done a lot of work around educational attainment and improvement. We’ve really positioned our work on a cradle to career continuum,” Staton said during a break in the event. “But if you have no emphasis on health in that continuum it’s still a challenge to produce educational outcomes that we need. So in order for us to improve and continue to build that workforce of tomorrow in this region, we’ve got to make sure that children not only are educated, but they’re mentally stable and have healthy lives.”

In addition, the event is part of a larger effort to improve the health and well-being of families in the region.

Beyond a list of about 30 experts in a wide range of fields, participants also heard Walls’ account of growing up in abject poverty and how those experiences both scarred and shaped her life and those of her siblings.

“Many people have asked me how I survived the childhood I did. It was impoverished. I was worse than poor, I was ‘po.’ We couldn’t afford the word,” she said. “I dug through school garbage to find something to eat. We were that destitute. There has been a lot of talk about resiliency and how do people make it out? How do we help those people? I am those people; I am one of them. … To put a face on poverty but to say people like me not only can get up but we can be incredibly valuable from our experience.”

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