Program gathers community resources to build resiliency for survivors of childhood trauma

September Online

Sept. 2, 2020

Just as childhood abuse, neglect and family dysfunction can have lasting effects on an individual's mental and physical health, systemic racism, generational poverty and related trauma can endanger the health and well-being of an entire community.

Amy Lovell, co-founder of REDgen, and her husband, Michael Lovell, president of Marquette University, founded SWIM, an acronym for Scaling Wellness in Milwaukee, to bring together civic and business leaders, law enforcement, researchers, health care and social service agencies to address resiliency in the region's at-risk communities.
Marquette University

Michael Lovell and his wife Amy, came to this realization through a combination of personal experience and civic activism. Michael Lovell is president of Marquette University, a Jesuit University in Milwaukee. He succeeded in life despite childhood trauma that included the suicide of his grandfather and suicide attempts of his mother, who suffered from depression. He describes his father as substance dependent.

Amy Lovell's parents divorced when she was 13, three years after her mother survived a brain aneurism. Trained as a pharmacist, Amy changed careers in 2013, cofounding a nonprofit called REDgen to respond to an increase in deaths by suicide among teenagers. The group brought together educators, parents, community members, interfaith leaders and health professionals with a goal of advocating for youth mental health and well-being. She is president of its board.

An accumulation of adverse childhood experiences are known to put people at risk for stress related disease and substance abuse as adults. Michael Lovell recognizes that his childhood trauma could have kept him from achieving his potential. Even though his immediate family wasn't always stable, he said, "I had trusting adults – teachers, coaches and parents of friend ? who invested in my success."

To help others rise above trauma by building resiliency, the Lovells formed Scaling Wellness in Milwaukee, better known as SWIM, and brought together the area's social service agencies, community organizers, pastors, business and civic leaders, law enforcement officials, research communities, Ascension Wisconsin and other health care providers. Through community collaboration, SWIM aspires to make Milwaukee a "trauma-informed city" — a place where the community comes together to take on race-based health disparities as well as violence and crime rooted in generational poverty and trauma.

Michael Lovell, president of Marquette University, addresses a breakout session at SWIM's 2019 conference, sponsored by Ascension Wisconsin.
Marquette University

The need for the community to address issues related to social justice, build resiliency and support mental wellness initiatives took on added urgency in August of 2016, when three days of rioting erupted in Milwaukee's predominantly African American Sherman Park neighborhood. It was sparked by the fatal shooting by police of 23-year-old Black man, Sylville Smith. The Black officer who fired the fatal shot allegedly did so at point blank range after Smith had tossed his gun over a fence and was lying wounded on the ground. The officer was acquitted of first-degree reckless homicide.

"Most of the systems in our country just aren't fair to certain populations," Michael Lovell said. "If we aren't actively working to make systems equal for everyone, we are implicitly racist. I realized I benefitted from those systems in overcoming my trauma but wasn't actively trying to change them so that other people would have the same opportunities I had. I thought maybe I could help put something in place."

Ascension sees synergies
Mike Lovell subsequently shared his childhood trauma and personal epiphany when he attended a panel discussion that included researchers in neuroscience and officials from law enforcement and health care. The response was so moving that the Lovells decided early in 2018 to reconvene the group on a regular basis to strategize on the best way to combat trauma and promote resiliency. They discussed using or redeploying the region's behavioral health resources, social service agencies, hospitals, medical schools and employment programs.

The monthly gatherings started with 30 members but swelled to more than 200, including representatives of Ascension Wisconsin. The system's St. Joseph campus, situated near Sherman Park, serves the surrounding community and provided SWIM with insights on ideas ranging from a mobile wellness program to policy advocacy and research.


"Mike saw what we were doing and reached out," said Bernie Sherry, senior vice president of Ascension and ministry market executive for Ascension Wisconsin. "As two Catholic organizations in Milwaukee, part of our missions and focus are to address the poor and vulnerable. We can do that better together."

With membership exceeding 900, SWIM co-hosted conferences in 2018 and 2019 devoted to building resiliency as a way to mitigate poverty. Ascension Wisconsin became the title sponsor in 2019, and its staff served as discussion leaders and panel members. The gatherings drew more than 1,000 regional leaders from social services, education, health care, research and law enforcement and stirred creativity, energy, momentum and action.

Among the projects to emerge was a partnership between Ascension Wisconsin, Marquette and Milwaukee's Social Development Commission, focused on the high school in Sherman Park, to raise health awareness and to provide an educational foundation for students interested in health care careers.

COVID-19 reboot
Coronavirus put those plans and regular meetings on hold until recently. Amy Lovell noted, however, that despite the pause, SWIM has continued to refine its agenda. The organization has become a focal point for small, local agencies with boots on the ground, helping to provide them with personal protective equipment and other emergency supplies to distribute to the community.

"We were a connection for them," she said. "We could elevate their voice at tables they weren't at, to say what the community needed. We were able to build trust with these organizations."

SWIM also conducted research with NATAL, a trauma and resiliency center based in TelAviv, Israel. NATAL held 39 meetings with SWIM's partners to discuss needs of the community and barriers to collaboration.

"They identified that there was no shortage of assets and people doing this work (on resilience) in Milwaukee but that there needed to be more collaboration," she said. "We needed help on racism and system change as well as scaling."

Better together
The biggest finding was that to become more effective and to scale their services, the nine community agencies SWIM works closest with needed a hub where they could share infrastructure services, such as accounting help, legal advice, strategic planning and wellness services for themselves" as well as a space where they could collaborate on projects that build resiliency and maximize their impact on the community.

Now SWIM's immediate focus is building that hub. The group has applied for funding grants and begun site selection. Meanwhile, the need for the services of the local agencies in the community was underscored again this summer, in light of the renewed calls for social justice following deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd as well as the recent police shooting of Jacob Blake in nearby Kenosha, Wisconsin. Blake survived, but is paralyzed. SWIM does not have partners physically located in Kenosha, but their community-based organizations in Milwaukee support and assist Kenosha residents on a regular basis when needs arise that relate to their individual missions and work.

"SWIM's vision is a just and equitable community where all can thrive. Injustice is not acceptable nor is being silent in the face of it," Amy Lovell said. "One of the things that we realized early was that the elephant in the room was racism. SWIM is a place where people have had those hard discussions. There's so much good work and people doing great things, but collaboration is the key. We have to make sure the right hand knows what the left hand is doing so we can support each other."

The other projects, such as the high school health partnership, will come off the shelf when SWIM can resume regular meetings.

"The exciting thing for us is collaborating, not staying in our own lanes," Ascension's Sherry said. "Everybody brings different resources and their own gifts to the table to address the community needs. We're just beginning, and even though we're on hold, we're excited about what we can do together."


Copyright © 2020 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.

Copyright © 2020 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.