Nicholson Foundation Funding Efforts to Address ACEs and Build Resilience in New Jersey on Multiple Fronts

Note: This story is part of Our Legacy Series about important work The Nicholson Foundation has supported that others might want to continue and build on after we close our doors the end of 2021.

Since 2018, The Nicholson Foundation has been working hard to make New Jersey a leader among states in how it addresses, treats, and prevents Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)—traumatic events that can cause children lifelong physical, mental, and social damage.  Over the past two years, The Nicholson Foundation has invested $3.5 million in efforts that directly prevent ACEs or build resilience to their effects and complementary programs and services that support healthy child development by addressing trauma.

The most commonly cited ACEs include abuse, neglect, domestic violence, household mental illness, household substance misuse, and parental breakups.  In the absence of a nurturing parent or caregiver, ACEs can lead to a toxic stress response that disrupts brain architecture and has lifelong negative effects on health and well-being.  Research since a landmark study published in 1998 has expanded understanding about how adverse environments such as poverty, racism, and unstable communities, can serve as fertile ground for ACEs to develop.   

“Our work is focused both on preventing children from experiencing ACEs and helping them heal from the harm that occurs when they do suffer trauma,” said Arturo Brito, Executive Director, The Nicholson Foundation.  “Over the past two years, we’ve focused our efforts on building a brighter future for our children and families, our communities, and New Jersey’s economy.  To achieve these goals we’ve been simultaneously supporting activities at the state, local, and community levels.”

In November 2018, The Nicholson Foundation and the Burke Foundation publicly committed to investing at least $1 million each into efforts to address ACEs.  Since then, both foundations have invested far beyond their initial pledges in this transformational work.

Here is a summary of The Nicholson Foundation’s ACEs and related grantmaking to date at the state, local, and community levels:

State-level activity:

  • The July 2019 release of Adverse Childhood Experiences: Opportunities to Prevent, Protect Against, and Heal from the Effects of ACEs in New Jersey.  The report, also supported by the Burke Foundation and Turrell Fund, details challenges facing New Jersey in addressing ACEs and outlines opportunities and actions for a coordinated statewide response to mitigate their lasting effects.
  • A two-day ACEs Lab in January 2020 that brought together cross-sector groups from across the state.  Facilitated by the Center for Health Care Strategies and Looking Glass Strategy, the Lab utilized human-centered design principles to help participants generate, refine, and prioritize actionable ideas to inform a statewide action plan to address ACEs.
  • The appointment of Dave Ellis in June 2020 as the first Executive Director of the Office of Resilience within the New Jersey Department of Children and Families (DCF).  His work is supported by a public-private partnership between the State of New Jersey and the Burke Foundation, The Nicholson Foundation, and Turrell Fund. Responsibilities include facilitating a cross-sectoral committee comprising New Jersey leaders to coordinate statewide work related to ACEs and co-leading, along with DCF Commissioner Christine Norbut Beyer, the development and implementation of an ACEs statewide action plan to address the needs and strengths of New Jersey's children and parents.  In early 2021, the Office of Resilience will add staff, supported by the foundations and DCF.
  • A grant to the American Academy of Pediatrics for the New Jersey Pediatric Residency Advocacy Collaborative to build partnerships between Departments of Pediatrics throughout the state and early childhood professionals, which will strengthen the early learning and development environment for children in New Jersey.  The project also is advancing community-level efforts to meet local needs and improve the systems of care and services for early childhood.  For example, all state pediatric residency programs have entered into partnerships with local Family Success Centers—one-stop shops that provide wrap-around resources and supports for families.  Many of the partnerships are implementing parenting programs to enhance caregiver skills and utilize a two-generation approach to early relational health that can serve as a buffer to ACEs.  
  • A related grant to The New Jersey Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics to improve access to mental healthcare to children and adolescents in New Jersey from birth through 18 years of age.  The grant is being used to train and provide technical assistance to 1,800 primary care providers over a 5-year period to enable them to conduct early identification, diagnosis, and treatment for children with behavioral health conditions—especially infants and toddlers exposed to adverse experiences associated with living in poverty.
  • A grant to Preferred Behavioral Health Group to pilot the In-Home Recovery Program (IHRP) that supports Ocean County parents of young children receiving treatment for substance misuse.  IHRP is a multipronged, two-generation, trauma-informed initiative to support parental substance use disorder recovery, healthy attachment, family stability, and positive child development.
  • A grant to the national ZERO TO THREE, in collaboration with the Burke Foundation and the Turrell Fund, to support the implementation of HealthySteps in New Jersey.  This evidence-based, interdisciplinary pediatric primary care model promotes positive parenting and healthy early childhood development.  HealthySteps specialists, who are licensed clinical social workers or psychologists, are integrated into the pediatric team and trained to incorporate ACEs screenings and properly address findings with families.
  • A companion grant to Hackensack Meridian Health to pilot the HealthySteps model at three of its pediatric practices as well as a grant to Seton Hall University School of Law to research and identify different funding strategies to sustain the HealthySteps model in future years.  These grants are funded by the Burke Foundation, The Nicholson Foundation, and the Turrell Fund.

At the local and community level, the Foundation made grants to three distinct community-based organizations to help them build resilience, support trauma-informed care, and boost skills of parents and caregivers:

  • Leaders for Life to support an afterschool program for children in grades 3-to-8 in Newark’s South Ward.  Students take part in instructional programs based on assessments of their needs.  Subjects include leadership development, academic support, college and career preparation, health and wellness, and science and technology.
  • Garden State Equality to support a team of clinicians, educators, parents, local government offices, and community organizations on a common understanding of ACEs and developing long-term strategies to protect, prevent, and help children, youth, and families heal from the effects of ACEs, while also helping the community become more resilient.
  • The Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund (LALDEF) to address and treat the mental health needs of Trenton’s immigrant community.  LALDEF is enlisting a counselor experienced working with ACEs-affected populations and who is providing education and training for staff members to effectively assist their clients showing signs of trauma.
  • Additionally, The Nicholson Foundation awarded a grant to Rutgers School of Public Health to monitor and evaluate the work of these three grantees to ensure their programs achieve their intended purposes and that lessons learned over the course of implementation can be used to strengthen  programs, services, and evaluation, ultimately leading to future growth and sustainability.