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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Bryan

Wait. What? I've Already Lived a Lifetime?

Today I was honored to receive the Haddonfield Memorial High School Lifetime Achievement Award. Here is my trauma-informed acceptance speech. For those unfamiliar with Haddonfield, NJ, it is a rather iconic, verging on an anachronistic, bubble of a town that I call home. It is located 15 minutes away - but in many ways is worlds away - from the impoverished city of Camden.

Good Morning! I feel like I am being sworn into the grownup version of the National Honor Society. I want to extend my thanks to the alumni committee, to classmates, friends and family who are honoring me by being present on this occasion, to my husband who has provided so much stability in life, cheering me on, and most importantly to my parents, who nominated me for this award. I feel “seen”, affirmed and appreciated for my accomplishments, and most importantly, I feel loved.

Every good talk makes 3 points, so here are mine: gratitude, lessons learned, and an invitation. I will speak to these through the lens of my passion, which is trauma-informed care.

Gratitude: Deep in my heart, I feel gratitude for growing up in Haddonfield. Since the age of 3, these brick sidewalks with leafy trees, historic homes, and the people who live here have created a safe community for me. I have always felt physically safe here, walking home way after dark, not feeling like I have to be hypervigilant – it turns out this is a rare experience for women in our country, and I am thankful to have experienced it. I have also felt emotionally safe here, growing up with friends, neighbors, and teachers who always cared about me, as well as my loving family. It turns out that safety is the foundation for any healthy community, something I didn’t know until I became trauma-informed. This safety, this sense of belonging, has grounded me and has given me the courage to be brave out in the world, first by caring for the sickest patients in Philadelphia back when I was an ICU nurse, then to become one of NJ’s first nurse practitioners; then to take a leap of faith, leaving traditional practice and the prestige of teaching at the University of Pennsylvania to start the UrbanPromise Wellness Center in Camden. And because of this leap of faith, I found my passion, which has become my gift and my curse! I am dedicating the rest of my life to raising awareness about the impact of childhood trauma on health across the lifespan, helping people shift from asking, “what’s wrong with you,” to “what happened to you,” because of my experiences working with youth growing up in concentrated urban poverty. And for this, I am the most grateful.

Lessons learned: My life experiences as a nurse scientist, an educator, and as a person of faith have led me to name two core values: (1) we are all connected, and (2) this idea of God, of something greater than ourselves, is best experienced in relationship – as love. Bessel van der Kolk, author and trauma expert, writes that “social support is a biological necessity, not an option, and this reality should be the backbone of all prevention and treatment.” Neuroscience is rapidly demonstrating how our lived experience becomes our biology – life events, good and bad, actually get under our skin, shaping our brains, shifting immune and hormonal systems, and even driving genetic expression. Think about that! Think of how the privilege of growing up in Haddonfield has affected our health – for the good.

Which brings me to the corollary, the insights I’ve gained from working with Camden youth for close to 10 years now, as well as with brave African fellows who come to UrbanPromise to earn master’s degrees and learn how to run nonprofits. American cities like Camden – and developing countries – are not as likely to provide social supports necessary for healthy development. It has nothing to do with skin color – I witnessed similar struggles through mission work with poor white Appalachians, Oglala Lakota Indians in South Dakota, and in Malawi Africa as well as in Camden. The challenges people face growing up in the toxic stress of poverty are universal. And healing, overcoming barriers that poverty erects is possible through relationship, which brings me to my third point.

An invitation: As I’ve worked in Camden, I haven’t always heard the most positive language in Haddonfield about our sister city’s residents. I’ve experienced people being afraid to come to visit UrbanPromise, even though it’s 5 minutes away from Aunt Charlotte’s (a popular candy shop) in Merchantville. I’ve heard a neighbor blame his dog’s poor behavior on the fact that he was rescued from Camden. My invitation – my plea, really, is to see that we are more alike than different from our neighbors in Camden. And the children of Camden deserve to grow up with the same level of safety and privilege I’ve experienced growing up – and raising my children – here in Haddonfield. But because of transgenerational poverty and racism, they lack the safety nets that we take for granted on this end of Haddon Avenue. Brené Brown, in her book, Braving the Wilderness, writes that "people are hard to hate close up. So, move in." I invite you to look at someone who doesn’t look like you in the eye and acknowledge that you are connected. I invite you to cross the road to the other side, as UrbanPromise founder Bruce Main writes, and get to know someone who is less privileged than you. Because God is found in relationship and we are all connected. We are evolutionarily wired that way! You will receive gifts that you didn’t know were possible by doing this, and Haddonfield will be doing its part to make the world a kinder place.

Thank you.

My parents, Bob and Barbara Hilgen, nominated me for the HMHS Lifetime Achievement Award

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