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Building second chances: Conference explores impact of trauma on tribal workforce — and how to help

Dr. Stephen Loyd delivers the keynote address Thursday, March 23. Holly Kays photo Dr. Stephen Loyd delivers the keynote address Thursday, March 23. Holly Kays photo

When Katelynn Ledford McCoy stood in front of her Cherokee High School classmates in June 2009, the class valedictorian was so high that, later, she wouldn’t be able to recall a word she said in that long-awaited speech.

She’d been hooked on pills for about three years at that point, but it was fine, she figured — as long her grades kept up. So far, they had. But after just one semester at Western Carolina University, her addiction forced her to drop out. She would spend the coming years in and out of jail, unable to care about anything besides her next hit. 

A couple longer spells drying out in jail combined with committed support from a friend in recovery allowed her to finally break the drugs’ hold on her. McCoy started to rebuild her life. That included looking for a job, but she had no idea where to start. 

“I needed someone to show me, ‘Hey, this is how you dress to go to an interview, this is how you build a resume,’” she said, telling her story March 23 during the Exploring the Impact of Intergenerational Trauma on the Tribal Workforce Conference in Cherokee.

She also needed accountability, community and a second chance. 

“When you come out of addiction and you come into recovery, you don’t feel like you’re worthy of second chances. Because you’ve hurt so many people,” she said. “Whether it’s your family, whether it’s community members, whether it’s friends, you’ve hurt people. I didn’t feel worthy. I didn’t feel like anybody should give me a chance.”

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Today, McCoy is married, employed as a peer support specialist at Cherokee Indian Hospital and set to receive an associate degree from Southwestern Community College this May. Her success, she said, is largely thanks to the support she received from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Mothertown Healing Program

Ripples from the past 

Mothertown, a year-long program that helps tribal members in recovery re-enter the workforce, is only one part of the multifaceted work falling under the EBCI’s Tribal Employment Rights Office. 

The office’s mission is to ensure tribal members get preference in hiring on the Qualla Boundary and that Native-owned businesses get preference in the award of tribal contracts. As part of that mission, TERO maintains a job bank that matches employers with prospective employees. When Terri Henry became the office’s executive director in January 2019, she and her staff started noticing that many people seeking employment through the job bank were, for various reasons, ill-equipped for the professional world. 

“We just kind of felt like it was important to have an understanding of really what’s going on in the lives of our people in the hope that in identifying what is the root issue or the root problem that we could find a way to address it, and to fix it in a meaningful way,” Henry said. 

That conversation spurred Henry to organize the conference March 20-24 at the Cherokee Convention Center, exploring how trauma impacts the tribal workforce. Funded with American Rescue Plan money, the conference featured about two dozen speakers — of whom McCoy was one — with sessions explaining what trauma is, how it affects the brain, what it means in the workforce and how its impacts ripple through the generations. 

From the opioid epidemic to fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions, trauma — especially childhood trauma — is tragically common nationwide. But Native communities like that in Cherokee bear an even heavier burden of inherited trauma due to historic injustices like the federal policy of Indian removal and the boarding school era, during which Native children were purposely cut off from their families and culture. These chapters in Cherokee history disrupted families, homes, customs and communities, creating risk factors for social ills like violence and addiction. Even today, Native communities struggle to overcome these ripple effects from generations past. 

The conference, Henry said, came out of “a real understanding and knowledge” of what tribal members are going through and a desire to find a way to move young people beyond the roadblocks of their past toward a fulfilling future.  

Stress leaves a footprint 

People whose history is not overloaded with trauma may be tempted to respond to those still struggling to overcome old wounds with variations of “just get over it,” but presenters at the conference showed why it’s not that simple. It all goes back to brain chemistry. 

“[When] a stressful thing happens, whatever it is, our brain correctly says, yikes, this is not good,” said Dr. Anna Bullock, a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. “And then our brain puts into motion two pathways in our body that are going to help us deal.”

Cortisol directs the body to increase blood sugar and substances that aid in tissue repair, and to temporarily shut down functions like digestion that are nonessential to surviving a flight-or-fight situation. Adrenaline increases the heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar, boosting alertness and energy. Meanwhile, the amygdala catalogues cues that preceded the danger in hopes of giving an early warning next time. The system works to marshal the body’s resources to escape death, as when a gazelle runs from a lion, but when triggered too often or severely, it can do lasting damage to health, behavior and life potential. 

“If you’ve had a lot of trauma in your life, all kinds of sensory input, normal stuff, will trigger this,” Bullock said. “It can be a tone of voice, facial expression, things that could have been and were associated with traumatic episodes in our past, that did mean something bad was about to happen. Dad was about to pull the belt out, or whatever it was. But now those same things probably don’t mean that. But the amygdala is still responding to it in the same way.”

This is part of the reason why ACEs, or adverse childhood experiences, can be so impactful to a person’s health and success later in life. The original ACEs study listed 10 types of childhood trauma — things like emotional, physical or sexual abuse, or growing up with a family member who uses substances, is mentally ill or incarcerated. If a person has experienced four or more before age 18, the risk of all manner of poor outcomes rises rapidly. 

‘Sending our kids out to die’

Self-medication can be an attractive way to deal with the pain these kinds of wounds cause, whether that self-medication comes in the form of drugs, overeating, sex or something else. 

“When you feel that bad, you want to do whatever you can to feel better right now, even though you know there are consequences to using these things to do that,” Bullock said. 

Unfortunately, many of these coping mechanisms cause consequences not only for the person doing them, but for their families and any children they might be raising, perpetuating a cycle of trauma.  

Dr. Steven Loyd, a keynote speaker March 23, knows this from personal experience. He grew up in poverty amid a family tree is full of people with substance abuse disorders — including his mother, who had undiagnosed bipolar disorder and was physically abusive. When he was 5, his favorite uncle became sexually abusive. The abuse continued and intensified for years. It was a secret that Loyd intended to keep buried. 

“One, I didn’t want anybody to know. Two, it’s in the past,” he said. “I’m a doctor. I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps. I got by. But the truth is I didn’t get by.”

Addiction risk is like a slot machine, he said. When the three sevens line up — family history of addiction, childhood trauma and a widely available and socially acceptable fix — watch out. For Loyd, those first two “sevens” were in place from a young age. He saw the third “seven” slide into the payline when he became a doctor. At 30 years old, after a stressful day at work during a stressful season of life, Loyd got into his car, found some Vicodin in the glove compartment left over from a dental appointment, broke one in half, and popped it in his mouth. 

“By the time I got home, suddenly my wife was better, my kids were better, my job wasn’t as hard,” he said. 

Soon, he was chasing that feeling all the time. Within three years, he was taking the equivalent of 100 Vicodin a day. 

The habit rewired his brain. The limbic system — the pleasure center normally motivated by food, water and sex — no longer cared much about these basic elements of individual and species survival. It only wanted the drugs. Meanwhile, the frontal lobe, whose functions of judgment, insight and empathy offset the primal urges of the limbic system, was silenced. Loyd’s desires and actions were now driven only by the brain’s rewards system. And the rewards system was driven only by drugs. 

It takes a long time for an addict’s frontal lobe to come back online. Loyd showed PET scans demonstrating that it’s still dark after 10 days of abstinence, flickering back to life at 100 days. It takes about two years to fully recover, he said. 

“I had 95 days of treatment. When I came out, the frontal lobe of my brain had hardly come back,” he said. “Most of the kids here in Cherokee, if they get any kind of inpatient treatment at all, it’d be a week, 10 days, maybe if they’re lucky. If they get really, really lucky, they’ll get a month.”

A month isn’t enough, he said. Detox is the easy part. People don’t relapse because they’re dope sick — they relapse because they crave the way the drug makes them feel. Trying to resist such cravings without use of the rational, decision-making part of the brain, and without a strong support community around them, is a fool’s errand. 

“We’re sending our kids out to die,” Loyd said. 

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Mellie Burns of the EBCI Public Health and Human Services Department, participates in an exercise with fellow conference attendees March 23. Holly Kays photo

Finding purpose 

The EBCI established Mothertown Healing Program in 2017 to set recovering addicts like McCoy up for success as they figure out how to rebuild their lives. The results, said program supervisor Billie Jo Rich, speak for themselves. 

Of those who enroll in the program, 74% complete it, and 86% of those are still working and in recovery. 

“Having a purpose in life is the highest predictor of folks in recovery being able to sustain long-term recovery,” Rich said. 

The program aims to give them that from the get-go, opening with a five-to-nine-month beginning phase in which participants learn life and job skills, and focus on education, learning, recovery, developing new behaviors and goal setting. Cultural context is also key. 

“It’s important, especially for our tribal members, to be embraced back into the tribe again,” Rich said. 

Mothertown participants work on a variety of volunteer projects, showing that they’re ready to change and contribute something positive to their tribe going forward. 

Once participants have shown that they’re dependable and willing to learn, they enter the work experience portion of the program, a three-month internship with a tribal program or other local agency. It’s not just about on-the-clock hours. Mothertown takes a “supportive employment” approach — interns learn job skills and receive mentoring for their next steps professionally, but they also get help with any of the myriad issues that might still be holding them back from their time in addiction. This includes restoring and establishing credit, resolving any outstanding legal issues, getting their driver license reinstated and regaining child custody. Unlike with many other similar programs, Mothertown interns don’t have to clock out to take care of commitments like court dates and therapy appointments — it’s all considered part of their recovery. 

Shift of mindset 

TERO Employment and Training Manager Kevin Jackson is taking lessons from Mothertown as he leads a parallel program under TERO, dubbed the Workforce Experience Program. WEP is a combination of two federal grant programs — Workforce Innovation Opportunities Act and the Native Employment Works Program — aimed at getting tribal members employed. They’ve been joined together under TERO for about two years now. 

“Our goal with the Workforce Experience Program is to assist participants in overcoming personal and professional barriers that were keeping them out of the employment center,” Jackson said. “We wanted them to be employed. We wanted them to be prepared for employment. We want them to be successful and self-sustaining.”

When the program first came into being, Jackson and his colleagues at TERO saw that applicants faced personal and professional barriers to success. The TERO team considered how Cherokee customs, traditions and values could help them address those problems. 

Jackson is working to help employers shift their mindset from thinking of applicants as “just WIOA workers” or “just temp workers” to thinking of them as professionals in training. TERO began asking for detailed scopes of work from employers and encouraged employers to include program participants in meetings, get their ideas, and generally act as professional mentors to them. For prospective employees, they’re offering career counseling. 

TERO also wants to attack the problem legislatively. During the conference, attorney Randall Crowe presented a draft ordinance to update the tribe’s laws on expunging criminal records. The current law is only one paragraph long and allows for removal of only one misdemeanor. TERO is proposing changes allowing for total expungement of crimes committed before the age of 21 and expungement of nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors committed later in life — though with stipulations and significant waiting periods. 

“We’ve got people in Cherokee now that went and got their Ph.D., and they got a felony on their record, so they still have those obstacles no matter how high they climb,” said Crowe. “This is an attempt to help make that better for our tribal members and help people like [McCoy] be where she should have been without addiction.”  

More to do 

TERO’s efforts to help the tribal workforce overcome trauma are still in their infancy. Most of the team at TERO is fairly new, coming on board in 2018 or 2019. The pandemic, coupled with a December 2019 cyberattack on the tribe, have slowed progress. There’s no solid data yet on how these efforts are paying off, but Henry said the anecdotal results are encouraging. 

“We try to open up those pathways for folks to really have an opportunity to realize what they had first dreamed of,” she said. 

For McCoy, that first dream was to graduate from UNC Chapel Hill and become a surgeon’s assistant. Her struggle with addiction derailed that plan, and for a long time, she felt hopeless. She’d dropped out of school, and now she had a criminal record. What was the use of even trying, she wondered? 

But now, on the other side of recovery, she has new dreams, and a new zest for life. She’s passionate about her job as a peer support specialist, and about spreading the message of hope in recovery. Someday, she said, she wants to open a men’s transitional home. 

It was all possible, she said, because she got the help she needed to find her place in the world — despite the trauma and addiction of her past. 

“If it wasn’t for Mothertown Healing Project and them believing in me, I don’t know that I would be able to be so connected with my community and remembering who I am,” she said. “Because I am a strong Cherokee woman, and I do have worth. And I do have the ability to be able to turn around and help those that are coming behind me.” 

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