This article first appeared on the REL West blog and is posted here with permission.

Educators, health and mental health practitioners, social services staff, and others have been working together for nearly a decade — through groups like the California School-Based Health Alliance’s Central Valley Coalition — to collaborate and build connection between the health and education sectors to meet the full range of their students’ and families’ needs. As the next generation of youth-serving professionals step into leadership roles in these sectors, the Regional Educational Laboratory West (REL West) is collaborating with local partners to facilitate training and build connections that support the web of services available to young people and their families.

“It’s gratifying and exciting to see the growing focus
on trauma-informed and mental health practices”
— Survey feedback from event participants

REL West has been working in partnership with the Central Valley Coalition since 2017 by co-planning and hosting a series of regional convenings that bring together professionals who work with children, youth, and families. These annual, free convenings aim to build regional capacity for delivering research-based, trauma-informed practices in schools, clinics, and social service settings. REL West staff have worked with regional stakeholders to ensure they address timely and urgent topics related to understanding the impacts of trauma on children and youth and building their resilience through evidence-based, cross-sector, and locally implemented programs and interventions.

Early in the process of planning these events, it became clear that while professionals in the Central Valley appreciated the wealth of state and national resources available to them on the topics of trauma-informed practices and resilience, they were hungry for strategies aligned with the culture, challenges, and assets of the region. Some of the key components of these events have emerged in response to this request to ensure that these conferences were tailored to meet regional needs.

Unique Challenges and Assets

Residents of California’s Central Valley experience some of the state’s worst education and health outcomes and some of the nation’s most entrenched poverty. According to a 2019 Community Health Needs Assessment, children in the Central Valley have higher rates of adverse childhood experiences, depression and suicidal ideation, poverty, asthma, and food insecurity than others in the state, and lower rates of proficiency on standardized tests, high school graduation, and postsecondary education. There are some urban communities in the region, but most of the Central Valley is rural and much of it is unincorporated, meaning residents often lack access to basic infrastructure like potable drinking water, safe housing, broadband, sidewalks, and sewers.

Despite these challenges, those who live in the region point to recent economic growth and innovation as indicators of resilience and prosperity. They also express pride in an emerging “boomerang” population; young people returning to the area after earning advanced degrees, bringing with them experiences and resources to help build the local economy, strengthen the impact of community services, and create opportunities for future generations.

Given the region’s unique challenges and assets, what works in more urbanized or wealthier regions may not work here. For example, students may find it impossible to submit homework through an online portal, given connectivity issues. To address such challenges, the Central Valley’s health and education services providers recognize the importance of aligning their efforts and finding solutions from within their own region.

Meeting Regional Needs

A key component of the Central Valley Coalition’s regional convenings is highlighting strategies that are tailored to the culture and contexts of the Central Valley. Each event starts with a research presentation that highlights an aspect of trauma and resilience and draws on national, state, and regional data and resources. Participants then choose from breakout sessions that, by design, connect research and practice, almost exclusively featuring regional leaders sharing programs and interventions that have shown promise locally. Past events have featured the work of organizations such as Fresno Barrios Unidos, discussing a collaboration with local clinics to implement wellness screenings and the cross-sector Reedley Peace Building Initiative, showcasing restorative justice practices in local schools.

At the 2021 virtual event on understanding and addressing youth suicide, students from a high school in the Central Valley described their roles as leaders in their campus-based National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Club, which raises awareness on issues related to youth mental health and suicide prevention and offers peer-to-peer supports. Regional interest in youth suicide prevention has been especially high since 2017, when a suicide cluster at Clovis High School devastated the community and increased urgency among cross-sector groups to embed effective suicide prevention strategies in their services. REL West recruited speakers to share information about supports at the state and local levels to help Central Valley practitioners develop prevention, intervention, and postvention strategies that aligned with regional resources, capacity, and needs. Event staff worked closely with the Fresno Cares Suicide Prevention Coalition to ensure that the event highlighted the work of regional cross-sector efforts and supplemented existing learning opportunities and resources.

Training and Connecting Emerging Professionals

The event series has provided much needed training to professionals in the Central Valley who are invested in improving the health, education, and wellness outcomes for students, families, and communities. Participants are often bilingual and bicultural, first-generation college goers, and emerging professionals. They include teachers, social workers, nurses, behavioral and mental health workers, attendance and child welfare staff, nonprofit and community-based organization staff, and healthcare administration workers. The events have also drawn graduate and medical students from programs at the California State University, Fresno, and the University of California, San Francisco-Fresno program.

In addition to enhancing participants’ knowledge of evidence-based strategies for working with youth and families, these events have provided professionals from across sectors with opportunities to network with peers and to learn about potential partners who are also committed to serving their communities.

Incorporating Local Youth Voices

Another key feature of this event series is highlighting the experiences of youth and amplifying their voices to emphasize the importance of trauma-informed practices and the power of positive adult relationships. Each event in the series has featured youth speakers, including them as performance artists, breakout session presenters, and panelists in plenary discussions. Most of the events have featured student-made videos from Directing Change, a statewide program and video contest that raises awareness about youth mental health, encourages help-seeking behaviors, and promotes social justice.

At the 2019 event, California School-Based Health Alliance youth board members developed and led an interactive breakout session titled “Now You See Us,” which helped adult participants understand youth behaviors that may be symptomatic of deeper issues like distrust or unaddressed trauma. A key message was that schools and clinics could take concrete steps to make their environments more welcoming and engaging for youth, which could encourage them to seek help when they needed it to support their well-being.

Hearing directly from students has provided participants with concrete examples of youth leadership and ways they can provide services that support youth well-being and resilience. As one participant wrote, “Listening to speakers who have similar experiences that our students have and hearing what helped them” was beneficial to strengthening their work.

Building Regional Capacity

REL West is dedicated to supporting the next generation of helpers in the Central Valley as they build connections and learn about the interconnections of education, health, and wellness. Through these annual events, education and health and mental health practitioners have been able to build their capacity to implement trauma-informed practices and build youth and community resilience, hear directly from local youth about their experiences, and make valuable cross-sector connections. They have especially benefitted from receiving information, tools, and resources aligned with the unique culture, needs, and assets in the region.

Learn more about this event series on REL West’s Central Valley Rural Education and Health Alliance (REHA) page. You can also find information about each convening, including videos and resources, using the following links:

The fifth and final event in this series will focus on community trauma and resilience, to be held November 2021.