“All the small things can make a life changing difference.”

Blog, Make Your Mark | 06/30/2020

Our Make Your Mark series, powered by the NFL, showcases the global impact of the Tillman Scholars who are writing the story of a better future. In these videos they share their works of humble leadership and service across both public and private sectors. For the next few weeks, we will be sharing our scholars’ impressive work that seeks to actively change the world. This Make Your Mark Talk was originally presented in November 2019 at our annual Tillman Honors event.

“These blips of human compassion and connection have the building blocks of my resilience.”

As we reflect on the effects of COVID-19 and the continued conversation around the country on racial inequity, Rae Anne Frey-Ho Fung’s talk on “Answering Trauma with Compassion & Connection” captures a vital message on resilience and trauma.

She discusses the devastating effects of trauma on children and the crucial work she does helping young people deal with the emotional pain of abuse, violence and neglect. Through her work, she has sought out ways to find holes in our systems and get children the support they need to thrive and move past their challenges and struggles.

Rae’s message of compassion and small acts gives guidance on how we can all support those facing trauma, and how the smallest acts of service and leadership can make a huge impact on individual lives.

Or as she says: “All the small things can make a life changing difference.”

Watch her full talk or read the transcript below.

Imagine this: a seven-year-old child with a father who has spent time in prison, a mother who died drunk driving; a child who will go on to endure years of sexual abuse, who gets off the school bus to have to find her stepmother at a local tavern in hopes that she’ll buy her a frozen pizza for dinner; a child who is called a whore and made to sleep in a basement room that floods regularly.

What kind of future would you expect for this child?

In my field, we talk about ACE scores (Adverse Childhood Experiences), stressful or traumatic events occurring before age 18. The ACE study identified 10 categories of experiences. Encounter four or more of these, and you are more likely to go on to also experience high-risk health behaviors, chronic mental and physical health conditions, low life potential, and early death. 

Now, what if I were to tell you the little girl in that story is me, and I have an ACE score of nine. Nine out of ten. Yet here I stand before you, alive and in perfect health, with a resting heart rate of 52.


Thank you. Thank you. 

I graduated UW-Madison with honors, earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D, with a cumulative GPA of 3.9; Iraq war veteran, Tillman Scholar, and mother to two beautiful, healthy children.  

Some of you may be asking yourself, “How the hell did that happen?” I know I sure do. But what my ACE score doesn’t tell you is about the stranger who demanded I put on tennis shoes when I was mowing the yard barefoot; or the neighbor whose home I sought refuge at when the police were at my house time and time again; the teacher with whom I had a code word; the detective who worked tirelessly to make sure my perpetrator was imprisoned; the civilians and taxpayers and lawmakers who believe that military veterans deserve an education; and the folks at the Tillman Foundation who welcomed me into the fold.

All the small things. These blips of human compassion and connection have been the building blocks of my resilience, and they drive my work as a trauma psychologist.

But sometimes this alone is not enough

I work in the Milwaukee area, a city impacted by seemingly unending violence and trauma. Kids in my community are often not afforded the opportunity for that human compassion and connection that saved my life. Sometimes these kids need mental health interventions to jumpstart their resilience.

So what if I were to tell you that when I joined Rogers Behavioral Health just over one year ago, there wasn’t a single intensive trauma program for adolescents in our entire state. If you’re like me, you might be shocked. But treating trauma in kids is quite challenging. These kids are often suicidal; they engage in a whole range of high-risk behaviors; and they have parents who are similarly traumatized. This, to them being underinsured and under-resourced, which challenges the financial sustainability of any trauma program.

However, there’s a man in this audience named Jim Welsh. He’s my manager at Rogers, and he challenged me to do something about it. He called me to action and asked that I help him develop an adolescent trauma recovery program, despite these risks. We knew that we had incredible hurdles to overcome, but we also were pretty clear about our non-negotiables.

Traumatized kids need a safe place to engage in evidence-based trauma treatment, despite

being underinsured, so that’s what we created. Kids come to us for six hours a day for six to twelve weeks. They’re treated by an integrated care team. They engage in art and movement therapy. They reconnect with school. They learn how to manage really big feelings and how to interact with their peers.  

We have some pretty passionate, highly-qualified trauma therapists that help those kids process these traumas, and caregivers participate in weekly education and family therapy sessions. We also have a wonderful foundation that provides some grant funding for those families with limited resources. In our first year, we have seen PTSD and depression scores drop by as much as 64 and 67 percent. And best of all, most kids leave us no longer wanting to die or harm themselves.

But our work is not done. Trauma is not just a Milwaukee problem. From rural Wisconsin to New York City, childhood trauma is an epidemic. Every year in America one in four children are traumatized.

Today I showed you how the small things we do as humans add up. Because of human compassion and connection, this little girl with an ACE score of nine stands in front of you a doctor, who supervises over a dozen other therapists, who are in turn making a positive impact on the lives of children like me. We need to keep that momentum going.

So in the way Jim called me to action, I’m calling on you. Look to your left and to your right. Hold one another accountable. Kids need you to show up; they need you to keep caring. Kids need you to believe in resilience, to believe that people can make it through the most dire of circumstances and come out the other end to meaningfully contribute to this world. Kids need you to advocate for access to mental health care and to invest in those programs that are doing the work. All the small things can make a life-changing difference.  

Thank you.