Inukai Family Club Director wins public health award


X20160405_121233 When Rachel Parker moved back to Oregon from the East Coast, she applied for a part-time, minimum-wage position at the Inukai Family Boys & Girls Club in Hillsboro.

Instead, she was hired as its director of youth and family services. Two years later, she became director. And earlier this month, the Forest Grove resident won the “Public Health Ambassador Award” from Washington County’s Public Health Division.

“It’s so wonderful and refreshing to see someone who can take an idea from conversation to action so quickly,” said Division Manager Tricia Mortell.

Parker co-chairs the Public Health Advisory Council and is active in the Live Well Washington County community health improvement plan, sitting on steering committees for Suicide Prevention, Decreasing Chronic Disease, and Increasing Access to Care.

“She doesn’t just attend. She participates in full,” Mortell said.

Parker, for example, made sure both her staff and teenage members were trained in suicide prevention: what signs to look for, where to point suicidal friends. Some teens had already had friends talk to them about suicide, she said. “It’s extremely scary.”

The club also offered suicide prevention training to parents, sparking a support group for people who had survived the suicide of a family member.

Parker also brought her work with a collaborative on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) to the club, creating an assessment form to screen for such trauma and incorporating similar questions into membership applications.

It turns out many members have experienced some form of trauma, ranging from physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect, to family problems such as substance abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, incarcerated parents or divorce.

While youth can experience trauma differently, with one child being more affected than another, Parker said, the club works to build resiliency in its members because everyone can benefit from being resilient.X20160405_123955

“When children have gone through traumatic experiences, the first thing they’re concerned about is physical safety,” said Parker. “Their higher reasoning and brain functioning can shut down when they’re scared.” So the club creates a safe environment where those creative, higher-thinking skills can unfold.

In addition, the club offers youth a chance to do well at something and thus develop self-esteem. Club activities are so varied — sports, art, gardening, games, science, technology, animation, International Club and more — children are bound to shine at something, Parker said.

She cited Misty Copeland, the first African American prima ballerina with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre, who “started at 15 and took her first dance class at a Boys & Girls Club.”

The club serves not just youth but their families as well, including regular family activity nights. And various community experts have come to present “Tough Talks” to club members’ parents (and interested community members) on how to talk to their children about drugs and alcohol, sex, healthy relationships, preventing domestic violence and other difficult topics, as well as bullying, special education arrangements at schools and more.

The club also provides dinner and a snack for members after school each weekday. What’s more, Parker brought in the Oregon State University Extension Service and its “Kids in the Kitchen” program, which teaches youth how to cook nutritious meals with affordable ingredients that are likely to be in their homes.

Parker said knowing the children’s personal stories and the challenges they face has changed her: “It has motivated me to never stop serving, to always work as hard as I can to reach out, and to always remember that I am a megaphone for their voices in the community.”