Gina Warren, Damond Fade Dorrough and Marilyn Woods

Commentary — Building Strong Children andRestoring Strong Adults: How One California Community Is Empowering Change

Gina Warren, Marilyn Woods, Damond “Fade” Dorrough, and Sarah Marikos | Special to California Black Media Partners

There is a transformation taking place in an area of Sacramento once notorious for gang violence, sex trafficking, and near decimation brought on by the crack and opioid epidemics.

Despite the cultural taboos around mental health that still exist in many communities, this transformation is healing intergenerational trauma and changing trajectories – by getting to the root.

There’s plenty of evidence documenting how our early experiences shape our health and behavior. Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, such as abuse, neglect, and growing up in a household with violence, incarceration or problematic substance use, can lead to prolonged activation of the body’s stress response, a condition known as the toxic stress response, which affects both mental and physical health throughout the lifetime – even making changes to our DNA that ripple across generations.

The impacts of ACEs are compounded by factors like racism, poverty, and community violence, leading to even greater risk of developing the mental and physical health problems associated with toxic stress.

Consider that adults with four or more ACEs are 30 times more likely to experience suicidal behaviors than those with no ACEs. That’s one in six US adults. The urgency begins early in life, as children with four ACEs are eight times more likely to experience suicidal behaviors compared to children without ACEs. While these statistics may sound alarming, we see this as a charge – a cause to connect in community, a way to destigmatize what we carry, and a path to prevention.

The good news is that healthy environments and resources can help to regulate the stress response and heal and protect us from the effects of ACEs and toxic stress. Some of the most powerful and effective work we can do to address mental health and suicide – including the concerning rates among Black men and boys – is to prevent and address childhood adversity and intergenerational trauma. This is the core of the work we’re doing from our home on the intersection of Grand Avenue and Clay Street in the heart of Del Paso Heights (DPH) in Sacramento, through grassroots organization Neighborhood Wellness.

In DPH, like so many neighborhoods all over the US, many of our Black families are navigating intangible complexities of poverty every day.   They are suffering – some out loud, spreading their pain through violence. Some move with what appears to be a reckless disregard, coping in ways that put themselves and others at risk. Some hold it together in stoic silence, grinding through the days but barely calling it a life, or masking their inner world as they perform to others’ expectations.

Childhood in DPH is far from carefree. In addition to carrying their own baggage, Black people have been handed down the traumas of our elders. They navigate systems hostile to them while bearing these tremendous burdens. Since Neighborhood Wellness got its start in 2015, we’ve been disrupting cycles of intergenerational trauma. We work to remove stigma around accessing help, and to change what help can look like. For many in our community who have felt institutionally and structurally betrayed and neglected, just learning to trust somebody is the beginning of breaking the cycle.

Programs like our Restore Legacies restorative justice program and our Higher Heights self-paced high school diploma program for adults, along with services ranging from parenting skills and DUI classes with trauma education to lifesaving opioid overdose reversal and wound treatment response trainings all address a legacy of inequities and lower barriers to thriving in our community. Our Healing Circles create a trusted space to help us deconstruct what we carry – the effects of our childhoods, what we’ve inherited from those who came before us, the ways racism and trauma have impacted our ability to learn, grow, and create our own paths.

In DPH, transformation is taking place. Mixed generations are sharing in our Healing Circles, acknowledging the need to be mindful of what others may be carrying, stepping into their roles in their families as the innovators – the ones to help make change. We’re working to empower our community, to help them see their value. Consider the fortitude, the resilience, the strength it requires just to keep showing up most days. To do the work of unburdening what we can and shouldering what we must continue to carry, and still trying to find happiness, joy, love, and greatness. Students in our high school Healing Circles get an early start on this work of unburdening, and we provide additional behavioral health services on campus to ensure our young people have a safe space to make strong strides toward promising paths.

At Neighborhood Wellness, we provide the kind of community care that shines like a beacon in any kind of weather, calling our neighbors home and reminding us: no one is on this journey alone.

When we disrupt cycles of trauma and reduce childhood adversity for the next generation – through awareness, education, skill-building, mental health care, access to resources, and lowering barriers – this is suicide prevention. This is helping keep each other alive. This is building the future of our neighborhood, and beyond.

About the Authors

Gina Warren, Pharm.D. – CEO & Co-Founder, Neighborhood Wellness

Dr. Warren, who earned her doctorate from UCSF, brings both clinical and grassroots perspectives to leading an interdisciplinary team to serve the Del Paso Heights community, her childhood neighborhood.

Marilyn Woods – CFO & Co-Founder, Neighborhood Wellness

The retired CEO/CFO/co-owner of the Institute for Fiduciary Education, Marilyn manages corporate development, assists with strategic development and executive management, and serves on the board.

Damond “Fade” Dorrough – Senior Neighborhood Navigator, Neighborhood Wellness

Damond is generationally rooted in DPH and provides historical perspective and understanding that help address the challenges in the current conditions.

Sarah Marikos, MPH – Executive Director, ACE Resource Network

A public health leader and epidemiologist, Sarah leads ACE Resource Network’s national and community-based efforts, along with their work to advance research on the biology of trauma.

California Black Media’s coverage of Mental Health in California is supported by the California Health Care Foundation.


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