Suzanne Burns, founder and executive director of  Foundation House Ministries and BeCharityWise. Today on the show, she will share with us about creating a trauma-informed ministry. 

  • How Suzanne started her work with mothers in crisis situations
  • What led her to do some more research about trauma-informed
  • How to effectively minister to people
  • Reframing the role of ministry
  • More about BeCharityWise 

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Foundation House Ministries

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Carrie: Welcome to Hope for Anxiety and OCD, episode 82. I am your host, Carrie Bock, and if you’re new to our show, we are all about reducing shame, increasing hope, and developing healthier connections with God and others. Today on the show, I’ll be talking with Suzanne Burns about creating a trauma-informed ministry.

I feel like this is so important for people in the church to understand and know about, and we’ve had other episodes about helping people with anxiety in the church. So I’m excited about this episode as well. Suzanne, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Suzanne: Yes, I am the founder and executive director of a maternity home, residential and non-residential program for mothers in crisis.

We serve women coming out of jail, out of rehab, pregnant, and a. Sometimes they’ve lost custody or are working towards reunification, whether that’s with family members or with the state. And so we’re part of that process towards getting them to a place of being able to build sustainable stability. And out of what we’ve learned through doing that for the last eight years, we’ve also launched a kind of a side to other churches and nonprofits to help them understand how trauma and poverty mindset and addiction affect the people that they serve so that they can serve more effectively as well.

Carrie: Awesome. Now, how did you get started in that work in, you know, mothers in crisis pregnancy situations?

Suzanne: Yes, I was actually a single mom for a number of years, myself.

I had a crisis pregnancy when I was in college, and then, um, got grew up in a very, very Christian home and found myself by the time I was at a junior, at a Christian university, I was smoking, I was drinking, I was experimenting with illegal drugs, and then I ended up pregnant. We did get married and it was not good a marriage as it wasn’t a dating relationship, which led to divorce when my son was just right at two.

Then several years of single parenting, I met and married my current husband. We’ve been married now almost 20 years and had a second son.  And as I began to kind of rebuild and restabilize, I wanted. Be able to give back to women that were in the same situation that I had once been in. And so I began volunteering at a local pregnancy health center, and I was there for seven years.

I ended up really, really loving it, loving what I did. But we just began seeing more and more women coming through that needed a deeper level of support. They were pregnant and living in their cars. They were afraid of being kicked out by, you know, angry stepdads. They were 24 and didn’t have kind of floating like a leaf in the wind.

So many of these girls, one particular mom that I recall, came in one day and she was really frustrated because she had been looking for a job. And so I’m kind of a fixer. I was asking her, “You know, maybe, are you applying for the wrong kinds of jobs? Are you a poor interviewee? How can I help you fix the problem?”

And she said. “Well, you know, at some point in the interview the baby gets fussy or he needs a diaper change and you know, I’m pretty sure the interview is kind of over at that point.” And of course, my first thought was, “Oh, I’m pretty sure the interview was over when they saw you pushing in the baby stroller.”

I had been there long enough that I knew that’s never the full picture. So as I began asking more questions, I realized that the reason she was taking her child with her in the first place was because she was living with the baby’s father who was a violent drug dealer and people in and out all day and night. She did not trust him to watch their son even long enough for her to get a job. And I went home that day and told my husband, We have got to do something. It has to be. No one else has stepped up. It has to be us. It took about two and a half years of fundraising and developing, and we opened in 2014 and that conversation was in June of 2011.

Carrie: Wow. Tell us about, as you started that ministry and were working in it, some of the challenges that you had earlier on that led you to do some more research about trauma information.

Suzanne: Yeah, it was pretty much everything I’ve learned has been because a client came in that we didn’t understand or we didn’t know how to handle, and that is what sent us then to the research.

The Lord is so gracious in giving me a picture and then giving me the education behind it, and then bringing others who need me to know that information. So first it was a poverty mindset, understanding how chronic poverty kind of reshapes. Thinking the worldview of individuals living, especially those living in generational chronic poverty.

Then we started getting some clients coming in who had a history of trauma, but we didn’t understand what that meant at the time because I was used to seeing clients one hour every three weeks. You know, living with them is a whole lot different. And so we were getting frustrated and, and we were having a lot of girls come in and go right back out again.

We had one girl come in and she was sick constantly and it was always like an ER-worthy trip. She would go in to, you know, about every three to four. And we began to like time. We began to say, Okay, well it’s been, you know, this period of time we’re about due. It was always like bladder infection, urinary tracted infection.

It was always something similar but not exactly the same thing. And it was always validated by the doctors, because of course we were like, well, you know, at some point she’s gotta be faking it. and simultaneously with this, she was also losing jobs because of the time off that she was having to take her cycles was six weeks.

And so we were seeing that about every five weeks she was, you know, getting sick, not able to go to work. Her work isn’t happy. They end up firing her, she goes to the er and then we start the cycle all over again. She ended up that year with 13 different W two. And we were so confused. We were so frustrated cuz she was super, super sweet.

And then we had another girl move into the house who like used unbelievable amounts of toilet paper just by herself. This was way pre-pandemic, way before there was an actual toilet paper black market. But we were just like, how is this disappearing? How can one person be using this much? What is going on?

And then we had a student intern, a Masters in Social work Intern, doing her their practicum with us, and she had us watch a video by Bessel VanDerKolk, who is the author of The Body, Keeps the Score and instantly pieces fell into place. Immediately, we began to realize that this is the physical outgrowth of the trauma that these women had experienced.

That was the big awakening, eye-opening. We were immediately addicted to absolutely everything, trauma-informed to the point that we began teaching others just because we knew so much. We just saw the vast needs. There’s such an ignorance and such a lack within the church to understand. It was so fascinating and it was also such a relief that, “Oh, that it can be fixed.”

There is reason why her stomach issues were so constant. There is the reason why she was unable to process, to digest the healthy nutritional foods we were giving her. Her body had actually acclimated to Mountain Dew and Cheetos for lunch because that had been for years. So when we’re having salads and you know, fresh fruit and.

That was what was abnormal to her system. So for me, layering the poverty mindset with the trauma made it so much easier for us to then deal with women coming in with a past of addiction. Those coming in with a history of mental health because it, to me, is just like a layer cake based in the generational chronic poverty thinking that then the trauma is, it is components, you know, it’s either affecting or affected by the client and.

That leads to addiction as a coping mechanism, right? It leads to mental health as an epigenetic response to the trauma. It, it’s all interrelated, but it’s all rooted in their trauma, but also rooted in poverty thinking. Just from learning all of that, we have radically revolutionized how we work with. We now boost a 97% success rate of our clients being able to maintain their stability at least a year post-graduation, which to us is a housing, transportation, employment, and childcare.

Carrie: Wow. That is really amazing because those are a lot of pieces and a lot of times what we see is people come into programs and they’re doing okay and then they leave the program and they relapse or something happens and you know, they’re back into that cycle again, like you were talking about. We want to talk a little bit about the ACEs study, and I’ll have to kind of explain this a little bit to people, and then I have a question for you. So many years ago, I think this was actually done maybe in the nineties or early two thousands, Kaiser, the eighties early is when it started.

Suzanne: Yeah.

Carrie: Yeah, so Kaiser Permanente, a healthcare company that’s out west in the US, they said, we really want to look at these people with chronic health conditions. We weren’t even talking about mental health. They were talking about physical health, things like high blood pressure, and diabetes, and looking at the connection between what they called adverse childhood experiences and these chronic physical health conditions.

They had a scale where there’s 10 items on the adverse childhood experience scale. Some of them are things like parental divorce, obviously types of abuse, you know, physical sexual abuse. I think maybe having a parent with an addiction, isn’t that on there? These types of experiences that people had in childhood, and what they found was that okay if you had one or two, there was maybe a little bit more of a risk for you to have a chronic health condition, but once you got four and above, all of a sudden it was like a graph skyrocketed at that point like “Whoa, for these people to have addictions and actually end up with not just addictions, but that was one of the things they were looking at. Like I said, the high blood pressure and cholesterol, and so. and looking at people who have had more adverse childhood experiences may even have a shorter lifespan because of some of these chronic health issues that also arise.

What you had told me when we had talked previously. The average church attender has zero to two adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs are usually and the average range for your ministry is seven to nine, so obviously, that’s a big gap to bridge in people kind of understanding what some of these women have been through like can you talk to us about like the challenges of bridging that gap?

Suzanne: Yeah, exactly. So many of them have this significant trauma history. Someone with an ACEs score of seven to nine means that they have experienced at least one instance of seven to nine of those items on the ACEs study. And just for your audience, they are physical, emotional, sexual abuse, physical or emotional neglect, and then the household dysfunction category is a family member with mental illness and incarcerated relative domestic violence, mother treated violently, substance abuse or divorce, but that also can include fatherlessness. What we found was that these women are coming in and they’re carrying this load of trauma.

They’re carrying the past pain, they’re carrying the physical effects of this. They’re carrying the social and emotional and cognitive impairment because of that, you know, many of our moms about 70% did not graduate with a high school diploma or GED because all of this trauma is happening as children. That is significantly affecting them as far as school goes. Then you get labeled a bad kid, and so then you begin adopting those risky health behaviours, whether it’s teen boys that are driving too fast, whether it’s dating the wrong kinds, whether it’s, you know, drugs and alcohol and, and all of these different things that then lead to disease, disability, social problems, you know, in and out of jail, in and out of rehab programs, which can then lead to early death. It can also lead to chronic heart disease, to certain forms of cancer, to COPD and so many different things that we don’t even associate usually at. For an 18 to 22-year-old, the ACEs study does demonstrate.

We have women coming in from the church who want to volunteer. In this world that has experienced, like me, the ACE questionnaire asks you from birth to age 18 to answer that I was a zero. All of my ACEs occurred during this one single relationship. And I went from a zero to a seven and then kind of back down again once I began to get my life back together.

I have a certain degree of experience, but I cannot relate to the majority of our clients. In the fullness of what they’ve experienced. And so these little volunteers from the churches would want to come in.  I experienced this when I was young, you know, I did that. And so they think that that is enough to balance out the relationship.

It really isn’t because they can’t understand the depth of the brain changes that have occurred. So one of the most important things for us when we’re talking with new prospective volunteers is to really get them to understand what has changed in the brain development of our typical client. They think differently. They respond differently. They have been conditioned to think in these certain ways, and so their behavioral patterns.  It takes a long time to change those. So you’re going to see more rapid outbursts of anger. You’re gonna hear foul language as just as common. You’re going to see and hear things that you’re not going to expect in a typical ministry, and you don’t necessarily have permission to address it.

That’s usually the hardest part because that is hard. They haven’t built trust with our clients. We have, many of our volunteers want to come in and they wanna do bible. Well, many of our girls just flat aren’t interested first of all, and second of all, even if they are interested, they’re not ready for that level.

There’s a great deal of biblical illiteracy, but there’s also a lot of church hurt and church abuse that has to be gotten over before they’re ready for these types of things. And so many times they wanna come in and volunteers from the church want to come in and do these big deep Bible studies with the.

That impacted them, but they’re not a good fit for our clients because maybe they can’t read that well. Maybe they’re not equipped to do the amount of homework that is associated with some of these types of programs. Maybe they’re not ready emotionally for what is going to be unveiled. Maybe they’re not ready as far as just being able to read scripture specifically.

Some of those Old Testament names are really complicated, especially if you accidentally ask one of them to read out loud because you’re wanting to draw them in. If you’re doing the things that in a typical church environment you want to do, it can backfire. And so we have to be careful to equip our volunteers wisely so that they’re not set up for failure because our mission is not our volunteers.

Our mission is our client. Our volunteers cannot run off our clients, but there have been several times where our clients run off volunteers.

Carrie: Yeah, I can imagine that. Yeah. If you haven’t been used to that, kind of, that experience of what those people have been through in terms of the emotional reactivity that can happen with PTSD over something that, to you seems very slight, but it was a huge deal exactly for that individual.

It was a huge trigger and I think, one of the things that you’re touching on is a lot of times what the church can be guilty of is in these types of ministries going in and trying to like clean people up, like, “Here, let me help you. Here’s some money, or here’s a job, or here’s some clothes and you know, we’re just going to fix you all up and everything’s going to be good.” When true transformation has to happen from the inside out.

I’m curious in terms of like what you’ve seen regarding that may be in your work with other ministries, kind of how you’ve helped them to reframe that their role.

Suzanne: Exactly. A lot of times. Well, so it’s two-fold. One is the focus internally and how you work with clients, and the other one is how you message that to the greater community, to your donor base or to your volunteer pool, or your occasional volunteer pool.

A lot of times, I’ll use the analogy of a pound, because sometimes if you can change the picture from people to animals, it’s a little bit easier to process. Not that I’m equating our clients with. But sometimes it’s just an easier word picture to process. You find a, you know, a stray dog on the side of the road and he’s dirty and matted and, and filthy and you know, you’ve got all sorts of insects and everything crawling all over him.

He’s just really unhappy, starving. You pick him up and you take him to the pound. They’re going to do a lot of work. They will be checking him out by a doctor. They’re going to be cleaning him and, and de fleeing and debugging him. Whatever’s crawling on him, they’re going to be getting him the nutrition that he needs.

That’s a process. It’s not an instantaneous, “Oh, I found a dog on the side of the road and now he’s ready for adoption into a new home”. They have to see what’s his temperament. What kind of personality he has? Does he get along well with other animals? Does he get along with small children?

Before they can put this animal into the adoptable population, they have to do some rehab work. But when we look at people on the side of the road, it’s like we have the expectation that all you need is a shower, a hot meal, and a change of clothes, maybe a haircut. But you ought to be fine now and go get you a job and let you know.

Start paying your own way, and it’s not at all the same. The women that we work with are so broken and they have been holding themselves together for so long that a lot of times our first few months is just giving them space to finally acknowledge their broken. And finally, feel all the feelings that they have been hiding from for so long before we can even begin the process of rehabilitation to get them to the place where they can then learn, grow, and move forward.

Our motto is rescuing mothers, rebuilding lives and restoring futures. And that is very much the progression that we walk through with these women. Rescuing can take upwards of six. Rebuilding. That’s the point where she’s finally ready to start working and getting the job skills that she needs and figuring out, you know, credit and starting to save money to buy her first vehicle because we, we live in a semi-rural area where there is no public transportation, and so a car is almost always her first goal.

Then getting daycare and getting healthy, getting her into the ob-gyn office and, and checking her out, making sure the baby is doing well. Then as she begins to kind of master some of these things and start looking towards the future. Now we can start thinking about what rebuilding looks like for her.

What does living independently look like for her? And that whole process. Overall, pre-pandemic, we were looking at six months to a year for most. And since that time, it is more like 18 months to two years, partly because of economic changes and partly because we are seeing a significant increase in the severity of the women that come to us. Just for a frame of reference, we’re the only maternity home within 150 miles. So we serve 13 counties by design and several others by default. So it’s a really vast population that many, many, many are in this boat, but they are not being served because we are so limited on staff in size.

Carrie: Where are you located at?

Suzanne: Right outside Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Carrie: Okay, great. Tell us about BeCarityWise.

Suzanne: That is our training arm. We have online videos and we also do in person, whether live via Zoom or local training to help other churches, and nonprofits understand how trauma poverty mindset and addiction affect the people that they serve so that you can serve more effectively if people are interested in going to

I’ve written a short little book called The Accidental Social Worker that helps you get a feel for the why behind some of these things, why poverty mindset is an issue, and why trauma is affecting [hysically. Many times we just assume that, okay, well you’re not in trauma anymore. I’ve rescued you from that. I’ve got you a safe bed to sleep in. I’ve got new food. You know, that should be enough. But the trauma carries with them because the trauma is not actually the event that happened. It’s the emotions associated with the event that happened, and that can carry through really for a lifetime until these women are able to find healing.

Carrie: Yes, that’s huge. A lot of overlays between what you are talking about and foster care. You know, this sense of like, okay, so we’ve removed this child from the home where there was addiction and poverty, neglect, and now we’ve put them in the suburbs with this nice families and everything is safe and good, but they’re still responding as though they’re in that abusive, neglected environment. You know that that happens.

Suzanne: Exactly.

Carrie: Quite frequently and a lot of times people, they’re very confused by that. Like, what in the world is going on where? Responding this way? I think that what you’re doing is so important in terms of us being able to effectively minister to people out in the community, like the real world, real life stuff that you’re seeing, and so I appreciate you sharing with us about that.

At the end of every podcast, I like to ask our guests to share a story of hope, which is a time in which you received hope from God or another person.

Suzanne: The one that sparks me is actually what got me out of my first marriage and on this long journey, even though at the time I really didn’t realize it. I was so, I was still in active addiction with my first husband, but I was managing it, You know, he was a musician, which meant he didn’t have to work apparently.

and so I was doing what I could to earn more like I had sold mortgages at this time. I was selling insurance and I had a really frustrating day and I went to go to my mother-in-law’s to pick up our son, and I was just kind of complaining, you know, these were good little church people as well. And so I was still talking the talk when I was around them, and I just said, You know, it was so frustrating.

I don’t understand why God just won’t bless me. My mother-in-law just very graciously turned around and said, Well, What are you doing that God can bless? Then she just went back to filling my son’s little backpack as we got ready to go home. But in an instant, I was just stripped naked. I was so raw and open and vulnerable.

I finally saw myself through the Lord’s eyes, and that was the day that I had to shift everything. That was November. 2000. And from that point forward, it took several weeks for me to quit smoking. But uh, that was the only thing I was really personally addicted to. But the cigarettes, the alcohol and the drugs just stopped immediately.

My marriage was, was more of a challenge. But by February, my son and I were living independently because I couldn’t stay any longer. The veil had been, And I couldn’t unsee it. I knew that if I stayed in my first marriage because my first husband was not willing to leave that lifestyle, I knew that I would not be strong enough to stay stable on my own.

It was either with him and clean or without him and clean. And he chose without. And so, that to me is one of the defining conversations of my life. And it was probably 15 seconds long.

Carrie: Yeah. Sometimes all you need is that kind of one or two sentences and it just sparks something within you.

That was huge, Sounds like a turning point. And change the whole trajectory of your life.

Suzanne: It sure did. Yeah.

Carrie: Wow. We’ll put links in the show notes to where people can find you and hopefully, some people will kind of take advantage of these trainings for their churches and, and ministry sites.

Suzanne: Yes, I would love that.