Developing Community Capacity to Respond to Trauma An Interview with Lela Keys

The National Center for Family Homelessness' Katherine Volk recently caught up with Lela Keys, a lifelong resident of Clarksdale, Mississippi, has spent the past ten years operating community-based health initiatives in Coahoma County in the Mississippi Delta.

“The Mississippi Delta is a sparsely populated region, and we do not have extensive resources. This is an economically depressed area. We’re at the top of every disparity list you can find,” explains Ms. Keys.

Over the past several years, she has become increasingly aware of the need to expand her community’s capacity to respond to traumatic stress. She describes it this way: “Children growing up today experience more trauma at a young age than I will in my lifetime. Loss, crime, abuse, natural disasters…After Hurricane Katrina hit, I looked at where I live and thought about the needs of our community. I thought to myself: ‘What would happen if there was a disaster here?’”

Coahoma County is at high risk for many kinds of catastrophes. A dam in the Mississippi River has turned what was once swamp into farmable land, but the river runs along a major fault line, making the community vulnerable to serious earthquakes. In addition, the region is sparsely populated, which means that access to transportation and health care “are tough on a good day,” says Ms. Keys. “Most people don’t have enough income to get themselves out if we needed to evacuate.”

In thinking about expanding her community’s capacity to respond to trauma, Ms. Keys thought about more than catastrophic events. “I also thought about the children living here with significant behavioral problems. Are they experiencing chronic trauma? What are the public health concerns?”

Ms. Keys first step was to conduct an internet search to learn what was already happening in the state. There was no mention of traumatic stress and children. She also noticed that the local, county, and state disaster plans were developed in isolation from one another. To address this problem, Ms. Keys convened a group of community leaders that included police and fire chiefs, several school superintendents, leaders from Head Start and the local hospital, and other stakeholders to develop a plan to integrate disaster planning and expand her community’s capacity to respond to traumatic stress.

Since one of their first concerns was sustainability, the group decided to focus on training local people to become the “first responders” in the wake of a community disaster. Rather than rely on outside “experts” to come into their community, Coahoma County would have their very own cadre of community members trained to support children and families. Child care providers, teachers, and others who work with children would receive training on traumatic stress and how to work with children to help them heal. To help reach their goals, they asked the National Center on Family Homelessness to provide training, primarily to the Head Start community. They are developing plans to work with the public school system and the Children’s Trauma Recovery Foundation, which specializes in training first responders at the community level.

Keys notes that the community’s response to her efforts have been “very positive,” so far. “We recognize that this is hard work, but I believe that someone has to try to do something about it. We do ourselves an injustice if we don’t take advantage of whatever resources and skills are available. I know that this is the work I need to be doing right now.”

Publication Date: 
Newton Centre, MA, USA