JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — A more than $17.5 million gift from Ballad Health to East Tennessee State University will go toward helping victims of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs.

Pheben Kassahun attended the presentation and has more on how the donation will be used.

Because there is not much data about adverse childhood experiences and childhood trauma, Ballad Health and ETSU are forming an alliance to try to address the root cause.

They hope to lead the region in the country in being trauma aware and being responsive to the issue.

“This is part of a $17-and-a-half million commitment that Ballad Health made to ETSU. Part of that funding will go towards the first five years of this institute so that we can stand it up, create sustainability for it, develop curriculum,” Ballad Health CEO Alan Levine said.

The goal: to make life better for children in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

“A child’s brain is developing in the first three years of life. It’s being hardwired,” Levine said.

Levine said it is important to address the need for children to have basic necessities like good parenting, good nutrition, and family support throughout the early stages of childhood.

Levine said, “When those things aren’t there, that child’s brain is being hardwired to defend itself. Those are really good instincts for a child but they carry that into adulthood. If that isn’t addressed, and if it isn’t minimized, you’ve created another generation of somebody who’s going to lose hope.”

ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland announced the establishment of the Strong BRAIN Institute. BRAIN standing for Building Resilience through Aces-Informed Networking.

“As our faculty in the K-12 setting are working with students coming back this fall, the trauma that many students could have potentially experienced during a 6-month period being at home, in home settings that might not all be conducive to learning outcomes, is going to require recognition,” Noland said. “I’ve continued to learn about the needs of our students, the needs of our region and the power of language, and as we’re bringing students back this fall to classrooms K-12 and higher all across the region, that power of language, the understanding of history and how those two come together can help us navigate, what I think will be some very rocky waters.”

ETSU psychology professor Dr. Wallace Dixon will be the director.

“I learned that the more aces a person has, the more at risk they become for our debilitating illnesses and diseases such as heart diseases, cancer, diabetes, substance use, and mental illness. In fact, individuals with six or more ACEs are more likely to die 20 years earlier than individuals whose childhoods were ACEs free,” Dixon said. “Prevent and mitigate the longterm impacts of adverse childhood experiences. More colloquially known as ACEs. We know from the scientific literature, that having ACEs not only traumatizes the children experiencing them but they disrupt the development of normal brain architecture, which has lasting effects throughout the lifetime.”

The leaders are calling on other non-profits, political leaders, and faith based leaders to help.

“In order to one day, come back to this place and be able to answer with confidence, the children in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia are well,” Niswonger Foundation President and CEO Dr. Nancy Dishner said.

The Tennessee Department on Commission Children and Youth found 61% of participants had at least one adverse childhood experience. Twenty-seven percent of participants reported having three or more aces. Emotional abuse, separation/divorce, and substance abuse were the most commonly reported aces in the Tennessee study.

“If you want to close the gap, in terms of health disparities, racial disparities, this is how you do it,” Levine said. “This is how ETSU and Ballad Health are partnering to go to the root cause of a lot of this unrest that we’re seeing all over the country. You have to break the cycle and you break the cycle but making this kind of an investment.”

The Strong BRAIN Institute will be located on ETSU’s main campus.

In addition to Dr. Dixon, the institute staff will include a post-doctoral researcher and a coordinator of research and services.