VOICES: $1.6 million grant will be used to help ‘young minds and hearts heal,’ organization’s new CEO says

Note from Dayton Daily News Community Impact Editor Amelia Robinson: This guest opinion column by Berta Velilla, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Miami Valley Child Development Centers, appeared on the Ideas and Voices page Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020.

Credit: Jim Witmer

Credit: Jim Witmer

The Dayton region has had more than its share of trauma over the last year.

The tornadoes that decimated neighborhoods in Brookville, Dayton, Harrison Twp., Riverside and Trotwood shook us all. Even if we weren’t physically touched, we saw the horrific damage and identified with the sadness of those who lost so much.

We will help their young minds and hearts heal, too.

- Berta Velilla

Many families and children in these communities are still re-building and reeling from the knowledge that things could have been even worse.

Then nine people were killed and more than 30 injured on Aug. 4, 2019, when a shooter opened fire in Dayton’s Oregon District. The tragedy was horrific, senseless and random. Again, we collectively mourned.

Now there’s COVID-19, which is taking and threatening lives, and stripping us of our sense of safety around family, friends and strangers alike. Jobs and salaries are being cut, people are struggling to hold on to their homes and businesses.

Scientists who study the brain have shown that ongoing trauma takes a steep toll. Repeated and prolonged exposure to stress is toxic and puts us on high alert, potentially leading to physical and mental health issues. The effect is particularly pronounced for young children.

The organization I lead works with high-need children and families, many of whom are enduring immense stress because of COVID-19. These parents have low-paying jobs that increase their exposure to the virus. Many others can’t find work or are afraid to work because they have underlying health conditions.

Their young children may not know exactly what’s going on, but they understand things are not normal. Some children will be resilient and rebound, but others will struggle in our early care programs and even beyond.

Amidst the current challenges, we feel so fortunate to recently have received a $1.6 million grant from the national office of Head Start to support communities that have experienced natural disasters — like the tornadoes that tore through our community. Some of that money will go for post-tornado work at three of MVCDC’s largest sites — the Marilyn E. Thomas, Dixie and Stuart-Patterson early learning centers.

But we’ll also use the funding to provide mental health treatment for children who’ve experienced trauma and to create specialized classrooms for children needing intensive early intervention to ensure they can cope and recover from stress and deprivation.

Finally, we’ll use a portion of the award to bring the expertise of The Village Network and the Child Trauma Academy to our community. In partnership with these highly regarded organizations, we will access the latest research in brain development to help children overcome trauma. Our staff will receive training on a brain-based model of mental health developed by Dr. Bruce Perry, founder and Senior Fellow of the Child Trauma Academy in Houston.

Extending Dr. Perry’s research to our region will elevate the work that’s already occurring here to support the social-emotional development of young children — especially children of families who don’t have access to opportunities and resources that ensure healthy development.

MVCDC is committed to supporting children through difficult times — whether the hardship is brought on by natural disasters, a pandemic or poverty. But our focus won’t just be on their critical physical and educational needs.

We will help their young minds and hearts heal, too.

Berta Velilla is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Miami Valley Child Development Centers, the region’s largest Head Start provider serving Montgomery, Butler, Clark, Greene and Madison counties. MVCDC provides early learning and early care for children from 0-5 whose families earn under 100% of the Federal Poverty Level (about $23,000 for a family of three).

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