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United Way of Deschutes County shifts focus to systemic change

BEND, Ore. - More than 50% of adults faced at least one traumatic experience as a child. Trauma, toxic stress and Adverse Childhood Experiences all refer to the abuse, violence, and distressed family environments that children experience, which impact their health and behavior.

Trauma disrupts development and leads to physical, mental, and behavioral problems later in life. The more toxic stress a child faces, the more likely that as an adult, they will be at risk for smoking, alcoholism, drug use, obesity, diabetes, depression, suicide attempts, STDs, heart disease, cancer, stroke, COPD, and early death. More than 10% of adults experienced five or more ACEs when they were a child.

This is why United Way of Deschutes County has adopted improving resiliency and reducing childhood trauma as its top priority.

Resiliency means having the personal skills and perspectives, social support and relationships, and external support to manage hardships, cope with stress, and bounce back. It means having someone to count on, knowing where to get help, and being treated fairly by the community. It results in individuals having improved well-being, increased kindergarten readiness and attendance, and fewer chronic health conditions, and the community seeing less child abuse, higher graduation rates, and higher rates of employment.

United Way’s impact priorities are education, income, and health. These three things are the foundation of positive outcomes and well-being, along with basic needs like food, safety, and shelter.

Childhood trauma poses a barrier to educational attainment, without which, a person is less likely to have stable employment with a living wage, and more likely to live in poverty. This in turn affects the quality and safety of the housing and neighborhood in which they live, their access to healthcare, and their access to basic needs, including food.

The link between childhood trauma, educational attainment and health is clear. By focusing on trauma, United Way will address education, income, and health by addressing a root cause that affects all of these impact areas.

Focusing on the root cause is part of United Way’s new way of doing things. The community-impact approach the organization has taken on aims to change community conditions and improve lives by finding and  taking on the root causes of issues – the community characteristics that cause or contribute to critical problems. And, this approach helps to align organizations from various sectors around a specific goal. In this case, that goal is to improve resiliency, reduce ACEs, and successfully achieve social change.

United Way’s goal is nothing short of transforming our community.

There are many reasons childhood trauma exists. Some are big-picture and some small-scale, some long-term and some short-term. By increasing awareness about childhood trauma, developing tools and aligning regional programs to address it, fostering skills to build resiliency, and promoting training to support front-line workers while integrating trauma-informed services, United Way will increase the capacity of individuals in our community to cope with stress, to overcome challenges, and to thrive.

United Way of Deschutes County is changing in yet one more way. The organization will continue its long tradition of investing in, providing for, and protecting our region’s most vulnerable populations. And now, United Way will augment those investments by building better connections among stakeholders and resources, working in partnership with other organizations, to address deeper issues facing our community.  

The nonprofit will be working alongside Community Impact Partners: organizations that apply through a competitive RFP (request for proposals) process for funds to support programs in three specific areas: basic needs, which make up our community’s safety net, prevention and development, which strengthen our community, and transformational initiatives that address root causes and create social change.

Rather than targeting individuals that are served by specific regional nonprofits, United Way awards grants to vetted programs and organizations that impact our whole community, or a whole population within our community, while focusing on building resiliency and decreasing childhood trauma.

United Way has set its sights on the systemic change our community needs. Raising money and giving it away has not been sufficient to achieve transformational change, nor has it maximized resources in taking advantage of United Way’s unique cross-sector position.

The nonprofit is now poised to approach community transformation – addressing the root causes of challenges in education, income, and health and creating systemic improvement – by building a movement and serving as its incubator, convener, funder, and collaborator.


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