In the West End, a Unique Center Works to Lift the Emotional Weight of Trauma

The Trauma Recovery Center is one of just six receiving state funds in Ohio. It seeks to address the searing pain that comes from experiencing violence — pain which, in some cases, can spark further violence if not addressed.

click to enlarge Walter Metz, Jr. at the Trauma Recovery Center at Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Walter Metz, Jr. at the Trauma Recovery Center at Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses

This story is part three in the series Youth, Trauma, Trials, Time: a Deep Dive Into Youth and the Justice System. You can read the centerpiece story here and additional coverage here

When Walter Metz, Jr. was struggling to process the shooting of his 18-year-old grandson in the West End, he didn't have to go far for support.

He found help just steps from the scene of the shooting, at the corner of Baymiller and Findlay Streets, where community services organization Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses runs a unique program called the Trauma Recovery Center. 

Metz grew up in the West End before moving to Westwood and he remembers frequenting the neighborhood house from the age of 9. But the Trauma Recovery Center was something new to him.

That center, one of just six receiving state funds in Ohio, seeks to address the searing pain that comes from experiencing violence — pain which, in some cases, can spark further violence if not addressed.

Center staff and clients say those efforts are all the more vital after a summer of gun violence that claimed the lives of multiple teenagers as young as 14.

The Metz family’s roots in the West End, Over-the-Rhine and Downtown span six generations, with Walter right in the middle. He’s proud of that legacy. But it also comes with pain.

Multiple members of his immediate family have been victims of gun violence, including a granddaughter shot and killed in OTR. But Metz didn't seek help with the emotional weight of those events until his 18-year-old grandson was shot in the face in late August on Baymiller Street. The bullet traveled through his eye socket and lodged in his brain.

He survived — “by the grace of God,” Metz says — but the shooting left his grandfather with a heavy heart.

“That was the reason for coming,” he says. “This has been the place to just come and talk and communicate about how that made me feel, how it affected my family and what I can do to help my family and others in the healing process moving forward. Having someone to talk to concerning your deepest and most personal feelings and emotions… it’s not an easy thing to do, and there aren’t too many avenues to go down to get that. But here, the doors are open.”

Then-Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced the $2.6 million state grant creating five of the centers in 2017 in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Springfield to address the mental health dimensions of violent crime and other traumatic events. Officials announced a sixth in Toledo last month. 

“Often the victims of violent crime have been surrounded by violence throughout their entire lives,” DeWine said during a news conference about the centers in Columbus, according to The Columbus Dispatch. “Then, the trauma compounds. It is my hope that the support provided by these trauma recovery centers across Ohio will also help victims overcome emotional scars from their past, which can help prevent future victimization.”

Research suggests psychological trauma can actually change brain function and create greater chances a person will experience addiction, behavioral issues and mental illness.

"A growing body of research has begun documenting the measurable differences in brain development and function in individuals who have been exposed to early life adversity, meaning their environments have been characterized by sustained stress resulting from violence, neglect, abuse, and dysfunction," a 2017 report from national non-profit the Violence Policy Center states. "Science can now demonstrate that these neural differences are the direct result of traumatic experiences, the consequences of living with toxic stress... Those who live in high-crime neighborhoods marked by elevated levels of community violence are at an increased risk for experiencing toxic stress — and altered neural development."

Ohio is just the second state to fund such centers on a statewide basis after California. The Golden State's trauma recovery center network started with a center at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center. Data from that program shows that 74 percent of the clients at the UCSF center ended up with better mental health outcomes and a 56 percent increase in the rate of return to employment for clients following their treatment.

Cincinnati has the only center in the state located within a local, grassroots nonprofit — the other five run out of health centers or hospitals. The West End center receives about $125,000 from the state grant.

The idea, TRC Director Sheila Nared says, is to use an approach called trauma-informed care to create a safe place for those who have experienced violence or other traumatic events so they can process what has happened to them and learn coping skills and healthy emotional habits.

“We want people to feel safe and comfortable,” she says. “We want them to build some trust. They need that safe haven. We want to equip them with some tools, some ways to handle trauma, so that when they’re out there in settings with other people they can use them.”

Nared says the process works in a number of different ways but starts with taking walk-ins or referrals from local hospitals, law enforcement officials, Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority or nonprofits. In two recent cases, Nared says, the center received referrals from hospitals in Cleveland for Cincinnatians who had experienced gun violence there.

Staff at the center helps assess and document a client’s history with traumatic events and works with that client to draw up a care plan together. Then, they track the progress clients make in understanding and recovering from their trauma. If further treatment is needed, the center connects clients to outside partners who can help.

The center’s four staff members take an array of training and certifications — including certifications by crime victims advocacy group the National Advocate Credentialing Program — so they do more good than they do harm when interacting with people who are processing intense experiences.

“When you don’t use that trauma-informed care lens, not only do you take the risk of re-traumatizing someone, you could lose them,” Nared says. “Their stories are important, but we don’t probe them. We let them tell us. That’s when it’s genuine and they really tell you what’s going on.”

That time and space is vital for healing, 66-year-old Regina Martin says.

After she had a stroke a decade ago, Martin found herself newly vulnerable, relearning to navigate the world with somewhat diminished mobility and eyesight.

So it was a further blow when a group of men knocked on the door of her Over-the-Rhine apartment last year, forced their way in when she opened the door and pointed a gun at her face. They took what they could and fled, leaving Martin deeply shaken.

“I’ve never forgotten it, and I’m still healing,” she says. “I was afraid to go into my own home. I couldn’t sleep, even though the perpetrators were caught the same day. I cried a lot.”

Like Metz, Martin was already familiar with Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses, having also come there as a child. Nared and other center staff accompanied Martin to court proceedings and, when she couldn't find a way to feel safe in her home in OTR, helped her secure new housing in City West Apartments, not far from the center.

In addition to individual and group counseling sessions, referrals to other services and a comforting, non-judgmental space to process trauma, the trauma recovery center is situated in the middle of Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses’ wider offerings, which include a food pantry, clothing bank, gym with exercise equipment and basketball hoops, health classes and a blood pressure machine, plus a boxing ring that legendary West End boxers utilized in their formative days.

Those services continue an 80-year legacy for the location, which began as the founding site for summer youth program Camp Joy in 1937. The Findlay Street Neighborhood House —  a social service and community center for West End residents — followed near the site in 1945. The camp moved to Warren County in 1959, but the neighborhood house has remained.

Soon, it will have more capacity to treat trauma. Cincinnati City Council earlier this month approved roughly $100,000 to help fund an expansion of the center.

Gary Smith is another client at the trauma center touched by gun violence against a young person close to him. His stepson Cameron Franklin died after an unknown gunman shot him in the head in Lower Price Hill this summer. Franklin was just 14 years old, and his shooting sparked intense media coverage and discussion among elected officials.

His death has echoed through Smith’s family, he says, touching the lives of his nine children, many of whom attend group sessions at the center or spend time with Nared or other staff members off-site to talk about how they’re feeling.

“It’s helped me out tremendously,” Smith says. “It’s helped my kids out tremendously. It can teach my kids how to live better, how to act the right way, where they don’t need to go out and do this kind of stuff. And they can talk to their friends about that, about how to deal with emotions. I think it’s a kind of ripple (effect).”

Trauma Recovery Center counselor and advocate Janice Sowell says that in many ways is the point.

“When you have 14-year-olds shooting each other, it comes down to pain upon pain,” she says. “They’ve had traumatic experiences, but they’re kids and they don’t know how to deal with it. These traumas don’t get addressed. We need to address them.”