A Big Regional Health Funder Takes on Childhood Trauma and Resilience


When it comes to funding for children and youth, the bulk of grantmaking dollars tend to go toward things like early learning programs and other education initiatives. But some would argue that many of these grants only offer Band-Aid solutions and don’t get to the root of the problem of children growing up in poverty. That’s why a funding effort targeting childhood trauma caught our attention in the five-county area surrounding Austin, Texas.

St. David’s Foundation, a big health conversion foundation operating in this region, seems always to be trying something new, and it has the resources to put serious muscle behind its priorities. One of the Texas funder’s latest endeavors is focused on preventing childhood trauma and building resilience, a strategic priority based on research about adversity early in life as a major predictor of who will develop serious health problems and encounter a wide range of social problems later in life.

Research on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) suggests that children who are exposed to stress, violence and upheaval in their families and neighborhoods are at risk for a range of negative outcomes later on, including risky and violent behavior, poor education performance, chronic health conditions, incarceration, and poverty. Researchers believe that one way to fight this phenomenon increase kids' resilience so that they can bounce back from adversity, even when circumstances are out of their control or beyond their comprehension.

How does philanthropy step into this picture? Well, as we've reported, some funders—most prominently, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—are giving growing attention to ACEs. That grantmaker has backed research by the Child & Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative finding that half of allo U.S. children have experienced trauma, an alarming statistic. RWJF has also supported efforts to address the fallout from ACEs. For one project, it partnered with Sesame Street to teach coping skills to kids and parents who have experienced trauma.

Other funders are also on the case, including the Texas-based Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, which supports programs for teenagers who have experienced trauma, and the Tauber Family Foundation, which has made grants to train mental health professionals to identify and treat trauma in children.

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For its part, St. David’s Foundation recently made $8.2 million in childhood resilience grants to work on this challenge in Central Texas. The nonprofit grantees receiving this support are trying not only to prevent adversity among children, but also to bolster resiliency efforts among individuals, families and the greater community.

The largest childhood resilience grantee in this most recent round of giving is the Safe Alliance, a group dedicated to ending child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence that received over $2.7 million from St. David’s. Other top grantees receiving funds for related purposes include Any Baby Can, the Austin Child Guidance Center, and Austin Recovery.

Top health funders like St. David's and RWJF are tackling adverse early experiences as a public health issue that can be addressed through strategic philanthropy. “Literally, ACEs can make you sick,” said Martha Davis, a senior program officer leading RWJF's work in this area, when we talked to her last year.

Addressing adverse childhood experiences is still relatively new terrain for health funders. As we've seen, though, many of these grantmakers—including quite a few regional health conversion foundations—have been moving upstream to get at the underlying drivers of poor health outcomes. In that regard, focusing new attention on ACEs makes a lot of sense, given the growing body of research linking such past personal history with everything from risky behaviors to chronic health conditions and early death.  

Right now, St. David’s Foundation is focusing on low-income families with children between the ages of 0-5 for its childhood resilience work. Current and future funding will go toward screening in the primary care setting, specialized treatments, prevention strategies, and supporting ongoing research.