By Katy Yoder

Elysia Kiyija is enjoying her role as Program Director for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Oregon (BBBS). She started with BBBS in 2015 as an Enrollment and Match Specialist. In her new position, she’s found and cultivated partnerships with a variety of like-minded organizations like TRACEs. 

“We started to get interested in TRACEs three years ago because ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) play such a big part in the people and relationships we foster,” said Kiyija. 

Even with an in-depth intake process, BBBS staff didn’t feel qualified to do the ACEs test. But their confidence shifted when the focus on ACEs changed from measuring adversity to measuring resilience. They joined more than 20 other TRACEs partners who are using a survey called the Child and Youth Resilience Measure (CYRM) or Adult Resilience Measure (ARM) to track individual, relational and community resilience.  

“When the conversation about resilience came out, we saw it as a unique opportunity to have an impact,” said Kiyija. 

 Collaborating with Meah Cukrov, TRACEs’ Project Coordinator, has been incredibly helpful for BBBS in understanding the results of the CYRM data and focusing on ways to recognize, understand and overcome ACEs through this more positive and approachable way to look at trauma. 

 “Meah created an Excel spreadsheet to record CYRM answers and the resulting calculations,” said Kiyija. “We’re able to put the child’s score in the spreadsheet and it pops up with the areas of highest need for resilience building.”

To help, she and Cukrov created an assessment tool called The Resilience Building Toolkit. Now they use it with all their big brothers and big sisters to help them support their “littles.” The resilience data even helps the organizations create more alignment between “bigs” and “littles” to really help the youth in the program gain support exactly where they need it. 

“Our entire staff is excited about resilience,” she said. “Every kid that comes in is interviewed, and they fill out the CYRM. Goals for the match are based on results from the resilience quiz. It feels so strength-based when you’re focused on resilience.”

To make resilience goals easier for staff and matches to understand, Kiyija and her staff created a picture to illustrate it. 

“Imagine an umbrella of resilience that acts as a shelter. ACEs are going to happen or have happened,” explained Kiyija. “We can’t make the ACEs go away, but for the time the kids are with us, we can help them build an umbrella that serves their unique experience. We work closely with staff, mentors and parents, so when they’re not matched anymore, they still have that umbrella when they go out in the world. Since we have these kids for such a short amount of time, when they leave us, it’s so nice to know we’ve built something with them that is lifelong.”  

Here’s how it works: with mentoring in mind, the CYRM/ARM forms look at the youth and mentor’s answers, which help staff decide on action items from the list in the individual score. 

The categories in the Resilience Building Toolkit include an individual score, a relational score and a contextual/community score. The scores from the toolkit then help mentors focus on areas of concern to find action items that can mitigate them. Action items might be getting the youth involved in extracurricular activities, helping them make a safety plan with their siblings or finding a volunteer activity they’re interested in. Depending on the areas of concern, these kinds of actions can all enhance the relationship with their big brother or big sister and bring healing and growth in that area.

“The mentors gained so much from understanding ACEs. Especially the men,” said Kiyija. “They’re not always so keen on just building a friendship. It’s really helped us keep the mentors engaged and focused on resilience-related goals that are concrete. They see that they’re building something. It’s a different way of looking at mentoring than we’ve done in the past.”

She has a wealth of practical examples to share, but one in particular stands out. 

“A kid in our program has a very difficult life. He has two mentors known as a couple’s match. They spent the first three months building a relationship of trust and friendship. Once that developed, we brought in the Toolkit and his score showed he would benefit from teaching his mentors something. So he’s teaching them how to crotchet,” explained Kiyija. “It’s been so empowering for him and has bolstered his own resilience. He realized he could teach adults… and they don’t know everything!” 

The benefits of cultivating resilience touch everyone, not just the youth and their matches. For instance, 80 percent of social services staff often have a higher ACEs score. As they focus on cultivating resilience, staff members often realize how different their own young lives could have been with a more supportive community and key relationships. Some reflect that during times when they were experiencing trauma, they would have been so much better off if they’d had the resources to know how to reach out and find help during those rainy days. 

“It’s so much more hopeful now,” Kiyija said. “Resilience is a common goal for all the staff. It’s more concrete and less abstract. It’s something we’re trying to move a mark on every day. It’s given everybody renewed passion. A lot of our staff has been here for years and it’s always nice when we can see a new side of it.” 

The Resilience Building Toolkit has proven to be such a helpful tool to serve children and their mentors that Big Brothers Big Sisters has made it available to other organizations, too. 

“Hopefully it gives other organizations a place to start and an example they can use to make their own. We know the worksheet will change as our mentors and their ‘littles’ come up with ideas of ways to build resilience. It’s a living document,” she said. “We help everyone build their own unique umbrellas.”