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Billboard campaign raises awareness of childhood trauma in Peoria, and offers a possible solution

A billboard located at 425 Western Ave, Peoria IL 61604
Jody Holtz
One of the billboards located at 425 Western Ave., Peoria.

A high level of violence within the City of Peoria is the catalyst for a new billboard campaign aimed at bringing awareness to the issue of childhood trauma — and a free therapeutic program that could help.

For at least the next three months, the billboards will be placed around three Peoria zip codes, courtesy of the Center for Prevention of Abuse (CFPA).

“We were granted a limited amount of money from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, and we decided that an awareness campaign was really important, especially with the level of violence that we see in the news in the community,” explained Carol Merna, chief executive officer of CFPA.

“So, we researched through the Peoria City County Health Department, who was very helpful to us with their crime report and the 2020 mortality report, and found that 61603, 61604 and 61605 are the best places to put these billboards at the beginning. If we are able to garner more funds, we will certainly broaden that footprint.”

Carol Merna, CEO of the Center for Prevention of Abuse
Jody Holtz
Carol Merna, CEO of the Center for Prevention of Abuse

The billboards aim to explain what childhood trauma can look like, which Merna said takes many different forms.

“It can be abuse. It can be homelessness. It could be a shooting in the neighborhood. It can be bullying. It could be a number of things,” said Merna.

In addition to educating Peorians on what trauma looks like, the billboards also point to a potential solution, which is CFPA’s Safe from the Start program. The free, confidential therapeutic program is directed at children ages 0 through 5, as well as their families. A team of almost a dozen masters level therapists and a few counselors work with children on a case-by-case basis to determine their needs, find which type of therapy will work best for them, and ultimately help guide them toward a pathway to peace.

“Being able to name their emotions is really important, and then come to terms with it…because we know that children who have suffered extreme trauma in their lives, it changes their whole physiology," said Merna. "That means that they could shorten their life for up to 20 years if they have trauma that is unresolved. So we want children to grow up to be, you know, bright and happy adults. We don't want a broken childhood to break an adulthood.”

What sets the program apart from some others in the area is that not only does it help children who have experienced violence or abuse themselves, but also helps children who may have been witness to community or household violence — whether it’s a fight in the neighborhood, a shooting, or the persistent presence of sirens and flashing lights.

“We are very empathetic to situations that these young children have absolutely no control over. So, it could be a reaction in many different forms. And we want parents to understand what those reactions look like, but then also what we can do to help them come to terms with it,” Merna explained.

Safe from the Start was originally born from an initiative out of the office of the Illinois Attorney General in 1981. CFPA is one of nine sites across the state that offers the program. Merna said the program in Peoria typically sees 300 families per year and it is always used to full capacity.

“But we are always growing our capacity to make sure that we care for whatever the community need is. And quite frankly, we believe that the community need is pretty strong.”

The lasting impacts of trauma

Merna stressed the more experiences of trauma a child endures, the more likely they are to have something that affects their adult life. She cited a study conducted in 1998 by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program.

“They might be three times more likely to get lung cancer. They might be three and a half times more likely to get ischemic heart disease. They might be 12 times the risk of suicidality. And that's because when you are very young, your body is still growing and forming, and a young brain is growing and forming,” said Merna.

She noted when children repeatedly have their fight or flight response enacted, their brains can overdose on the chemicals released as a result of that, chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol.

“And it changes how someone's DNA is read and transcribed. So we know that it can change their entire future,” Merna said.

While the lasting effects of childhood trauma are significant, many times the issue goes unaddressed. Merna thinks lack of knowledge is a key barrier, which is why CFPA opted for billboards to promote the program.

“Which isn't a bad thing, you can fix that...It's worth the time. It's worth the phone call to do that. And we don't fault anyone for not understanding that children aren't as resilient as we want them to be. They can be resilient, and they can rebuild their foundation, but sometimes they need a little help doing that,” Merna explained.

And although the Safe from the Start program and all the services offered at CFPA are free of charge, there’s a certain level of skepticism behind free mental health care. However, Merna said CFPA’s reputation precedes them.

“Even if it sounds too good to be true…there is a cost, because there is a dramatic event, at least one, that has brought you to this… It is a very necessary program that we are willing to take the calculated risk of growing it if necessary. But we need to hear from the community and those that think that they might have children in their care that have experienced trauma and need that type of help. But we are going to be there for them just to make sure that they get the care that they need,” said Merna.

For those interested in learning more about the Safe from the Start program, or scheduling an appointment with a CFPA therapist, call CFPA directly at 309-691-0551.

Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant development director, assistant program director, host of WCBU's newsmagazine All Things Peoria and producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.