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CTIPP Partner Spotlight: Natasha Guynes, HER Resiliency Center

Please be advised that this post contains sensitive content that references and/or is related to interpersonal violence; substance use; houselessness; sexual exploitation; and childhood and developmental adversity. We encourage you to utilize resources and strategies that help you feel grounded, connected, and safe as you engage with this content.

Natasha Guynes is the Founder and President of the HER Resiliency Center (HER), which gives 18 to 25-year-old-women overcoming hardship a safe environment to receive the support, skills, and resources they need to make positive decisions and thrive. (Based in Washington, DC, and Baltimore, MD)

We wanted to share Natasha’s perspectives and expertise with the trauma-informed movement as part of our ongoing effort to build the grassroots network, spur collaboration, and share insights from lived and professional experiences.

Years of advocacy, research, and/or professional experience in addressing trauma?

Seven, and I have completed certification in the “Creating Cultures of Trauma-Informed Care Model,” certified by Community Connections in Washington, DC.

How did you get involved in the movement to respond to trauma? What inspired you to do this work?

In 2015, I started HER based on my difficult transition to adulthood. I had little positive guidance and even fewer resources. I eventually found guidance at 21 years old in the peer-based recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous. I wanted to share with other women the care and guidance I found in that community — that too many of us do not have within our nuclear family.

I grew up with everyday violence — hitting and threats — neglect, and my dad and his wife used drugs. My mom left me and my sister in her effort to escape my father and the poverty we experienced. In reflection, I’m certain it was the poverty that left us susceptible to pervasive abuse. No one wanted to ask the tough questions about what was happening or what had happened because it would only lead to more “work” they would have to do.

My experiences – my story – aren’t unlike what we hear at HER every day. It was only through starting HER that I realized how pervasive trauma – specifically, complex trauma – is in our homes.

This realization helped break down my shame about my past. This ultimately afforded me the opportunity to heal and share with other women a potential path to their healing. Feelings of shame create isolation. These “aha moments” helped me to step out of my shame and to be of greater service.

I learn so much from the women HER serves. Through building genuine relationships, we learn their triggers and trauma responses. We see them heal as they embrace the HER community and receive our side-by-side guidance. Nothing is mandatory at HER.

The women we serve also teach me about my trauma journey, which has pushed me to continue my trauma recovery through EMDR therapy and healthy ways to self-regulate. Learning from each other enhances the trauma services HER provides and prepares us to embrace new opportunities to help women recover.

(Gunyes on the left)

What's your organization's strategy for addressing trauma in your community, industry, and sector?

At HER, we treat every woman we serve as a person - not as a label. This is important as social services across the country are often limited by funding to only serve individuals with specific “issues.” At HER, we know that experiences such as abuse/trauma/violence do not happen in isolation, but they are indicators for higher levels of re-traumatization.

When activated, our brains go into fight, flight and/or freeze for survival. However, when a child experiences chronic trauma, over time, “the nervous system becomes chronically activated, and the “fight, flight, or freeze” response is constantly being activated, even when there is no threat or danger. If not broken, such patterns continue into adulthood.

For example, my childhood trauma led to a high-risk lifestyle – it’s textbook. This looked like childhood suicidal ideation, at 20, selling my body, smoking crack, and ending up homeless. These situations could have easily ended in death. I’m not saying this is every woman’s experience. More often than not, it’s like those we serve at HER daily. We often serve young women with a range of hardships: aging out of foster care with no support, experiencing homelessness, drug addiction, early unplanned pregnancy, sexual exploitation – always trauma.

We meet each woman where she is while providing exposure to the means to reach her goals. We cannot do the challenging work for her. However, we walk with her – in vulnerability – for her to know that she is not alone.

Also, we validate. Many women we serve don’t trust themselves when they first come to HER. Too often, abusers have told them, they “wanted it” or they “caused it.” This itself results in internal conflict. Therefore, we help each woman learn to trust herself again, which leads to her making healthy decisions and breaking cycles.

What value has CTIPP provided you or your organization?

With technical and advocacy support from CTIPP, HER made a Congressional Spending Request (earmark) for $685,000 in the fiscal year 2023 Congressional budget to set up the Healing Center for Survivors in Baltimore. The Center is focused on providing women who are survivors of sexual exploitation to have a safe home and the trauma-based therapeutic services needed for their specific mental health and wellness recovery.

In 2020, Forbes reported that human trafficking – encompassing sex and labor trafficking – is a $150 billion annual industry. That is a lot of money, and it makes sense that everyone’s recovery will take time and investment. HER is prepared to offer the time, and thanks to CTIPP, we were able to submit an earmark to the United States Senate Appropriations Committee by Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Chris VanHollen (D-MD).

Our approach is person-centered and based on the tenets of trauma-informed care. We understand that treatment and recovery is an individualized process unique to each woman. Healing is deeper than any physical wound. This takes time.

We are grateful for CTIPP’s commitment, high-caliber operation, and willingness to lead in building grassroots coalitions across the country. In doing this, we may have more trauma-informed policies – based on action – to help support trauma recovery, provide prevention, and build resilience. Through this process, communities, leaders, and residents will learn that trauma-informed care can help create more empowered communities. Fortunately, CTIPP is doing its part to ensure the movement of trauma-informed care is shared with the utmost integrity.

We look forward to our continued collaboration with CTIPP.

What's the most surprising thing you've learned, so far, about trauma, prevention, recovery, healing, and/or resilience?

I’m surprised… that I haven’t been surprised. Trauma is everywhere. If you’re attuned to it, you can see its impact. In my city of Baltimore, we’ve had 300+ murders annually for several years. These premature deaths take a toll. This impact has caused trauma in the lives of residents throughout the city – if nothing else, secondary trauma.

The brain is hardwired to problem solve. Faced with a lack of viable solutions, the brain will turn to suicidality or homicidally. Females are statistically more likely to turn their aggression inward with suicide attempts, while males are more likely to express aggression externally, which leads to homicidally. In Baltimore, men commit most murders. We label women as “mentally ill,” and men more likely to end up incarcerated, and if we step back, we can see that both are often rooted in trauma.

That said, research indicates that one of the largest factors of a resilient individual is their community. We have also learned from PCEs, Positive Childhood Experiences, that feeling supported by peers, having a sense of belonging and connection with a larger group who has “got your back,” enjoyment in participating in community traditions, and a relationship with at least one non-parent adult who takes genuine interest in you can offset Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). I was proud to learn that myself and co-creator of HER, Melissa Kubacki, LCSW-C, LICSW, naturally built PCEs into our model in 2015 without knowing this research was underway.

Through the reinforcement of a positive community, it is reinforced that we can heal by being part of a supportive community that allows us to build trust, try new things, occasionally fail, get back up, and try again.

Ongoing education is so important - what podcasts, authors, shows, or news outlets do you follow to deepen your understanding on this work?

As the leader of HER, I study other programs and systems across the country, and we incorporate what is working and build from their success. At HER, we are not about duplicating anything but instead building from what is effective in the lives of real people.

For example, through the development of the Healing Center for Survivors, I’ve requested meetings with other programs across the country to learn what’s working, what they would change if they could, and what they find to be the greatest barriers to the success of those we serve. This information helps HER reconcile whether we identify commonalities in their experiences, how to build from those we may have missed, and how to tie the pieces together to ensure greater success.

There is absolutely a need for education through textbooks, podcasts, shows, and other outlets. Our focus at HER is on implementation for greater trauma recovery. At this point, this isn’t academic for us but practical application. As we see what does and doesn’t work, we have the chance to make real-life changes that get real-life outcomes.

What positive trauma-informed impacts have you seen in yourself, family, community, industry, sector, and/or system?

As we apply a trauma-informed approach based on the six tenets of trauma-informed care (1) Safety; (2) Trustworthiness; (3) Choice; (4) Collaboration; (5) Empowerment; (6) Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues, we have seen true empowerment in the lives of women we serve as each one has gained the use of her voice.

Our voices – along with feeling safe, trusting self, having choices, and being part of the collaborative process – all lead to our empowerment. No one can give someone their voice, so we must support each other in becoming empowered to access it. It’s not about doing something “for” a young woman – it’s about being vulnerable enough to take the journey “with” her while she gains access to new healthy tools and then takes hold of them. In this process, she finds her empowered voice, and thus, her empowerment.

In my world, I hear the word “empower” a lot. When we do something for someone, that’s not empowerment. It’s not easy, but I am continuously motivated to know that through this process, sustainable change is happening in the lives of women throughout the HER community. Wherever we start in life isn’t where we have to end. Having our voice – and knowing it can bring power and change to the world – is an incredible place to be.

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