Helping kids cope: We need to do more

By Julie Capaldi

For The Sentinel-Progress

January 8, 2020

PICKENS COUNTY — Whether you call it divine intervention, kismet or fate, I believe we can be lead down an unexpected path. I feel like I am propelled down a path I did not even know existed.

A few months ago, a man (who I greatly admire), and I had a very personal conversation. He was very open and forthright and I learned a lot about him…how he grew up in the rural south and became the first in his family to graduate from college.

Our planned thirty-minute conversation turned into a riveting hour.

Before I left, he recommended I read “Hillbilly Elegy-A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J.D. Vance. He said it would give me great insight into our community. I bought the audio version and “binged” listened. I thought after 26 years at United Way, I had great insight into the human condition … I did not.

Mr. Vance talked about the impact of adverse childhood experiences or ACEs. ACEs are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years) such as experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect; witnessing violence in the home; and having a family member attempt or die by suicide.

There are aspects of the child’s environment that can undermine their sense of safety, stability, and bonding such as growing up in a household with substance misuse, mental health problems, or instability due to parental separation or incarceration of a parent, sibling, or other member of the household.

Adverse Childhood Experiences are linked to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions like diabetes, shortened life expectancy and early death. As the number of ACEs increases, so does the risk for these outcomes.

One week after finishing “Hillbilly Elegy,” I was at a meeting where Pickens County First Steps Director, Amity Buckner showed “Resilience-The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope,” about how adverse childhood experiences affect children their entire lives.

The documentary highlighted a program called “Dear Miss Kendra.” Based on the powerful story, “The Legend of Miss Kendra,” it describes the tale of resilience born of suffering, of strength overcoming helplessness and the knowledge arising from the truth of experience.

Miss Kendra is a guardian figure who helps children cope with chronic and toxic stress of everyday living. Schools across the United States who are implementing “Dear Miss Kendra” are experiencing amazing outcomes.

We need to do this.

The School District is working hard to address mental health issues and United Way is funding a pilot with the National Alliance on Mental Issues. Both programs target high schools and that is amazing.

We need to start earlier.

You wouldn’t think someone as young as 6-years-old would need mental health coping skills … but they do. I have four years of data from Camp iRock that proves that children are already suffering mentally as young as kindergarten. What six-year-old feels she isn’t loved — or doesn’t have a future?

A few months ago, I learned that a Pickens County middle school student committed suicide. It broke my heart. Based on what I know, this epidemic will only get worse if we don’t do something now.

Currently, Pickens County ranks number one in South Carolina for suicide and 50th in the nation in access to mental health services.

Understanding the impact of a childhood filled with trauma has made me look at people differently now. Instead of thinking, “What is wrong with you?” I ask myself, “What happened to you?”

The next time a person gets on your last nerve, try looking at them differently. Maybe you’ll find a new source of compassion and maybe a little more tolerance.

Julie Capaldi is president of United Way of Pickens County. She can be reached at or 864-850-7094, extension 101.