When we reflect on the organizations committed to preserving the health and well-being of our communities, we often focus on the needs of those served. Lesser discussed, however, are the needs of those who provide these services.

Latoya Haynes-Thoby, assistant professor, licensed professional counselor and trauma specialist, has long been driven by questions regarding how to best support and sustain the community-facing organizations that safeguard our society.

“We don’t really give much attention to where the services come from, or who the people are that are doing this work,” she said. “It is important to consider how we support crisis response providers and the work that they do. It is both important for the community’s well-being and the longevity of those types of organizations. We need to be sure that the next time we make a referral, there are people that can adequately respond to those needs.”

From her many years working in Pennsylvania, her research and service focus on understanding the impact of trauma, exploring culturally-specific factors that contribute to resilience and honoring the community-rooted protective factors that support individual, family and community well-being.

Latoya Haynes-Thoby

In fall 2020, these persisting questions led to an opportunity to create a transformative workshop series for GRACE Marketplace, a one-stop shelter and resource center for those experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

Filling the Gaps

Having connected with GRACE Marketplace upon her arrival at the University of Florida in 2019, Haynes-Thoby forged lasting relationships with the organization and particularly, its Director of Training and Outcomes Jeff Gruver. He inevitably sought her guidance on how to bolster staff’s trauma-informed care training not only to better serve clients, but also to better care for themselves.

“There’s an old saying that an empty vessel fills no cups,” he said. “… I want to deliver the highest level of care possible to my guests here at GRACE, and that means I have to deliver the highest level of care to my staff. If I don’t take care of them, they will not take care of anybody else. It’s really that simple and they’re really important.”

What Haynes-Thoby and Gruver didn’t know was just how valuable these training sessions would be — as the global pandemic was right around the corner.

Jeff Gruver

Navigating Unprecedented Circumstances

“In the very beginning, our plans for the workshops did not include the pandemic — there wasn’t a pandemic,” Haynes-Thoby said. “… As the pandemic progressed, we were able to pivot in a way that allowed for considerations of the implementation and operationalization of the principals of trauma-informed care. This also meant that we needed to address what it would mean to  maintain a trauma-informed system within a pandemic context. We were invited to co-create a space that staff’s trauma might also be a consideration, as losses continued to multiply due to the pandemic.

“How do we make sure that we’re not just watching burnout occur and doing nothing as staff fall away,” she continued. “Not just because of being exhausted from the work or from compassion fatigue, but also because we saw people becoming very ill themselves.”

It is no exaggeration to say that the global pandemic brought forth unprecedented challenges for society, but we would be remiss not to acknowledge the persisting challenges it also illuminated.

For GRACE Marketplace, this was a reminder of the importance of self-care and strategies for managing stress, burnout and compassion fatigue. While these practices are vital year-round, they were critical as their campus locked down, reduced its capacity to 70 percent and staff moved on-site 24 hours a day to reduce exposure and bolster shelter safety.

“It was terrifying at the beginning of the pandemic because we didn’t know what this was,” Gruver said. “We didn’t know how deadly it was. We didn’t know how fast it could take over the population.”

Together, Haynes-Thoby, Gruver and the staff at GRACE collaborated to create a six-week workshop series focused on pressing challenges the frontline was facing. Their goal was to foster a safe space for staff to share their struggles and to come together to find meaningful solutions.

“My staff — who kind of is confronted daily with the face of human suffering day in and day out — all of their fears and stressors were exacerbated,” Gruver said.

“… I started to notice increased staff tensions and burnout and compassion fatigue presenting themselves, and you can only say take care of yourself so many times before it begins to sound meaningless,” he continued. “So I needed some extra assistance to try and rebuild that stuff — and that’s where Dr. Haynes-Thoby came in.”

The series was held virtually and focused on a diverse range of topics based on staff interests and needs: trauma-informed self-care and self-compassion, stress management, compassion fatigue, burnout prevention, vicarious traumatization, grief, anti-racism in homeless and housing, cultural awareness and cultural humility.

“I think a lot of us don’t often admit that there are days where you go into work and it feels like you’re working at 110 percent and then there are other days where it feels a lot less heavy,” Haynes-Thoby said. “During the pandemic, what we heard was lots of staff described feeling as if they were at 110 percent every single day and then going home to loved ones and being at 110 percent there. We were witnessing staff achieve levels of burnout that were different than we had seen before. The candle was definitely burning high at both ends.”

Cultivating Collective Strength and Resilience

Exploring trauma-informed self-care and self-compassion, the staff discussed what it meant to rev up and wind down. Together, they curated two music playlists to mindfully foster these experiences in their day-to-day lives.

Repositioning the function of restoration was at the forefront of conversations around stress management, compassion fatigue and burnout prevention, reflecting on how to navigate these feelings and provide space for oneself in moments of need.

“We hoped to support staff to let go of some of the self-blame that arose as the pandemic worsened,” Haynes-Thoby said. “This was challenging, as frontline staff at the shelter are people who are really dedicated to helping others. This is their life’s mission, and they really struggled with the constant exhaustion. The exhaustion seemed to lead to a self-judgment, as if the problem were rooted internally.

Too often, we don’t ask the question of whether or not we need a break or just additional support,” she continued.

“… It was important to not only allow space for this, but to proactively facilitate an environment that allowed this. I remember staff describing their experiences over the past week and feeling as if a load had been taken off by being able to name those experiences — just being able to acknowledge that the challenges faced during the first wave of the pandemic were not the result of a deficit within them as human beings. Those spaces allowed them to acknowledge that what we were facing was not within the realm of what had ever been imagined as normal within our lifetimes.”

Holding space for grief was also a critical conversation as staff continued to navigate unprecedented circumstances and face loss both personally and professionally. Discussions centered around what resources were available to support staff and how to express needing additional support.

“It’s really, really important messages that they needed to hear, and it was helpful in reframing thoughts and ideas and providing some soothing to ourselves in the harder times,” Gruver said.

Additionally, the workshops examined cultural awareness and humility, social justice and anti-racism to address race-based and identity-based hate historically affecting homeless and houseless populations and to improve equity and cultural reflective services within the shelter.

“The workshops provided a space for staff to acknowledge their own needs and to reconnect to the gifts that call each of us to this work,” Hayne’s-Thoby said. “… It was really awesome to witness the staff’s response to the workshops and to hear about the aspects that would stick with them.”

Gruver shared that Haynes-Thoby’s guidance and the tools the staff gained made all the difference during such a trying time.

“It was just such a wonderful thing to attend those workshops and so valuable for a lot of staff — and I still have staff who talk about it,” he said.

There were even staff who fell ill, but still logged on to participate and engage in the conversations.

“I really think that the strengths of the workshop resided in the mutual learning community that was facilitated,” Haynes-Thoby said.

Creating Ripple Effects

But beyond the significant impact these workshops had on the halls of GRACE, this work also impacted counseling students at the College of Education.

Not only did doctoral students assist in the planning of the workshops, but they also collected evaluative data to explore the experiences of these frontline workers during the pandemic.

Additionally, Haynes-Thoby hosted a panel discussion with diverse trauma experts from across the country for masters-level students. Gruver served as one of the panelists.

“You just get folks who are really passionate about their work, even during the pandemic, and who are committed to showing up in for the community,” Haynes-Thoby said. “I think you could wake those folks up at three in the morning and whisper about this work and they’d be ready to talk and teach about it.

“I think that’s what students picked up on as well, and I think one of the really beautiful things about this is our students are often people who will become those experts too,” she continued.

By doing so, Haynes-Thoby sought to demonstrate to students the power of trauma-informed care and the opportunities that await them as they continue to progress in their programs and their professions.

Looking to the future, Haynes-Thoby hopes to continue to support the invaluable work of GRACE Marketplace and other frontline organizations across Alachua County. She hopes to provide students with more opportunities to engage with community organizations and to continue promoting the importance of trauma-informed interventions that benefit the people and families that makeup our surrounding communities.

“I think about the mission and intention of the University of Florida and our commitment to making sure that our presence impacts the community positively,” she said. “So many of our students are already really connected and committed to this work, so they need to see us modeling what engaging and providing tangible supports to the community can look like.”