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In Our Hearts: Children’s Interests Are Our Region’s Interests

In Our Hearts: Children’s Interests Are Our Region’s Interests

By Vincent D. Hillyer

Batches of paper hearts arrived from other schools, churches and neighborhoods, some from as far away as Australia. All held handwritten messages of encouragement, intended as a gesture of love and support for the children in the Ferguson-Florissant School District and their community.

They were part of a campaign created by Susie McGaughey, an art therapist here at Great Circle, aptly called “Hearts for Ferguson.” She saw children struggling to express their emotions after Michael Brown’s death and wanted to help.

As we approach the one-year anniversary of the Ferguson crisis, those paper cutouts are called to mind. In its metaphorical sense, the heart represents emotion. Traumatic childhood experiences negatively impact a child’s chances of success later in life. It was important to reassure the children of Ferguson that the world wasn’t turning on them. They were loved.

But the heart is also a muscular organ. It serves as central command for the circulatory system, carrying blood to and from an intricate network of blood vessels. When trauma occurs, the heart is weakened. The body breaks down. Health fails.

The teen’s shooting death in August 2014 also opened a deep-seated wound as some of our region’s toughest issues were laid bare for all to see. More of us began to understand that everyone loses when sociological issues go unaddressed. Unmet needs spawn family stress, unemployment, violence and crime. And, all too often, social stigmas position treatment as an option for only the most dire situations, rather than a preventative resource that can help shift the tide toward healthier families and stronger communities.

Amidst last year’s turmoil, Great Circle’s attention turned to the vulnerable, the children and families quietly struggling to live, work, and go to school.  The chaos was confusing, difficult to process and powerful enough to shape perceptions for life. 

Months before, we already had been invited in as a partner at Mark Twain Alternative School to provide services to at-risk kids and families. We became an even deeper resource after the crisis. And through the support of St. Louis County’s Children’s Services Fund, we will expand our therapy services to all 23 schools in the Ferguson-Florissant School District this fall. No one can change the past, but we certainly can work to shape a better future for the children.

This work compliments broader efforts that are focusing on reducing the impact of toxic stress and trauma in our communities. Public will is actively mobilizing against the glaring disparity in the wellbeing of children and families in the St. Louis metropolitan region.
Creating safe spaces to have uncomfortable conversations about traumatic and stressful events so that we can address them early will help us to prosper mentally, physically and economically.

It’s not uncommon for those who undergo open-heart surgery to remark that they didn’t realize how poor their health had become. Ferguson is growing stronger, but a full recovery has yet to occur.  

Let’s continue the good work. It’s about our kids. Our region is fortunate to have the assets and access to the means to produce exceptional outcomes for all of our children. 
As we reflect on the struggles of this past year, let's renew our commitment to the heart as both a symbol of love and as a sign of health for our children.

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Vincent D. Hillyer serves as President & CEO of Great Circle, a St. Louis-based agency that provides a unique spectrum of behavioral health services to children and families throughout Missouri and beyond.