Growing the number of trauma-informed staff

Published March 4, 2024

Two of Sonja Nelson’s five children regularly spend time at a Boys & Girls Club of America. And, she says, “I have one more who can’t wait to come.” 

She trusts the Club’s staff to be a welcoming environment for her kids, especially “to give them a safe space to handle those big emotions and channel them.” 

Two women speaking to a young girl at the Boys & Girls Club of America

This Club in Wisconsin is just one of over 5,000 Club sites within Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) whose staff have already undergone extensive training in trauma-informed practices. Clubs that are trauma-informed understand the impact of trauma and implement practices, policies, partnerships and programs that promote healing and growth by supporting youth and staff in a way that is sensitive to their needs and experiences.  

Spreading trauma-informed practices across the country 

Thanks to $10 million in support from Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies, BGCA is ramping up training in trauma-informed practices for 48,000 staff at more than 5000 Clubs. The work will touch the lives of more than three million children across the country by 2026. The missions of these organizations align on many levels: both have national reach plus deep local roots, and both are committed to confronting the youth mental health crisis in communities across the nation.  

Meeting room at the Boys & Girls Club of America

“This partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America is about fostering a local approach to meet kids’ mental health needs and access the resources and support they need to thrive,” said Sean Robbins, executive vice president and chief corporate affairs officer at BCBSA. “By equipping these Clubs and frontline staff with the knowledge to de-escalate, triage and help meet kids where they are, we have the potential to impact the mental well-being of youth across the country.” 

Coming to a Club near you 

More than half of all Club organizations have been exposed to trauma-informed practices. A quarter are moving into more intensive phases of becoming fully trauma-informed. BCBSA’s support is intended to help accelerate this work.  

Why it matters: a growing youth mental health crisis 

A 2021 advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General made the news for its frank depiction of the state of kids’ declining mental health. But those who have been working with young people for years know the decline started long before then. 

Coach with kids at the Boys & Girls Club of America

“Research tells us that two out of three young people will have experienced some form of trauma by the time they’re 16,” says Jim Clark, president and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of America. “There are young people who walk through our doors carrying a variety of trauma on their backs, which can range from bullying, witnessing violence and experiencing a death or loss, to the effects of poverty and intergenerational trauma like racism and discrimination.” 

By prioritizing trauma-informed practices, BGCA strives to help kids mitigate the potential long-term risks that adverse childhood experiences can bring.  

What it means to be “trauma-informed” 

“One thing a lot of people think about when they hear the word trauma is that it’s probably an isolated incident that has happened, like a natural disaster or a car accident,” said Carlyn Andrew, chief culture officer of Boys & Girls Clubs of the Fox Valley. “There's this other side of trauma that can be persistent, things like childhood neglect or perhaps the emotional difficulties of a caregiver living in the household. That feeds into these high stress levels getting integrated into the brain and body over a prolonged period of time.”  

Andrews says trauma-informed practices embrace the wider definition of trauma. Training helps staff develop proactive policies and procedures that promote an emotionally safe environment and guard kids against reactivating that stress. 

Through BCBSA support, BGCA is moving toward a state where trauma-informed practices are embedded into every department of every Club, even including trauma-informed goals into Club strategic plans.  

Coach speaking to a young girl at the Boys & Girls Club of America

Trauma-informed practices in action 

Trauma-informed practices include methods of interacting with kids that respect their strengths while acknowledging their difficult experiences. It might look like someone at the front desk welcoming a child into the Club, saying, “glad you’re here!” instead of “how are you?” The difference? That seemingly simple question, “how are you?” may feel too complicated or triggering to answer for a child who has experienced trauma during the day or at any time in the past. It also might look like a sensory room or a space where kids can ground and calm themselves. Collectively, it means responding to situations and behaviors with compassion, consideration, and evidence-based techniques that support social-emotional well-being. 

A “village” for families 

For parent Sonja Nelson, the approach is evident in the way her kids communicate about coming to the Club. It shows up in the way she feels about staffers.  

A young woman spending time with a child at the Boys & Girls Club of America

“Everyone I've come into contact with has just been very much on my level. Like we're all part of the same team,” said Nelson. “They have become literally part of my village.” 

And, thanks to this long-term partnership to accelerate trauma-informed training, that village will increasingly surround her and others’ children with the kind of support they need to thrive.

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