Understanding ACEs: Stories of trauma and resilience

Over the past few months, the OCDE Newsroom has cast a light on ACE’s – or Adverse Childhood Experiences. Through the process of exploring ACEs, we’ve discovered that while childhood trauma can have an influence on who we are and how we engage with the world around us, it is resiliency that truly defines who a person becomes.

Thankfully, despite tragic situations, some people take their painful experiences and use their stories for the greater good of their communities — and that is where we’d like to focus our attention.

Stay tuned as we highlight students, staff and members of our Orange County community who have used their ACEs to grow, learn and build resilience.

We had the opportunity to connect with a former OCDE ACCESS student, Cindy Kha, to learn how she was able to beat the odds stacked against her. Her story offers a real-life example of how an understanding of ACEs can truly change lives.

Cindy Kha Former ACCESS student

Cindy Kha, former OCDE ACCESS student, shares how she built resilience after childhood trauma.

Below is Cindy’s story in her own words.

Early childhood and family life

I grew up in Westminster and Garden Grove with divorced parents and was a first generation American born in a community that was typical of working parents. My dad worked 12-plus hours each day, seven days a week, with little time to spend with the family. When I was between the ages of 5 and 12, I actually lived with my grandparents because my parents were always busy with work, trying to make a living in Southern California.

My family home life was constantly up and down, shuffled from different families’ houses to care for me when I was young. I grew up very independent; I hardly had any parental oversight from the time I was 5 years of age. School was always easy for me, as academically I never had to try.

As a result of my parents always working, I grew up feeling abandoned and misunderstood. My family didn’t intend for me to feel this way, but it was a result of the environment that I grew up in.

I didn’t understand a lot of things that happened to me when I was young. For example, I always wanted to spend time with my family and didn’t understand why they always had to work. I often felt neglected, and it was hard on my mental and emotional health.

When I was a teenager, I began seeking attention from outside sources besides my family, since they were never a source of comfort for me anyway. I began to do drugs when I was 12 years old. I ran away from home and often hung out with older kids.

My parents sent me to a boarding school for troubled teens when I was 14. I came home from that school when I was 15, and I began doing more drugs. I was expelled from school when I was 15 because I sold drugs to a classmate that I hardly knew. When I was 16, I went to juvenile hall because I was arrested for drugs. I didn’t shape up until I was nearly 17. I was attending OCDE’s ACCESS school when I was 16 due to being expelled from school.

Turning trauma into resilience

As an adult, I realize that this was shaping my future for the strong resilience that I have and the strong independence that I now have, but at the time of my schooling years, it was a constant roller coaster for me seeking attention from friends, wanting to control my situation due to the constant emotional rollercoaster from my upbringing, and wanting to embrace being in control of my life.

I enjoyed attending school through the ACCESS program because I appreciated the independent study. The level of compassion and down-to-earth approach of the teachers is what I really admired. Mr. Walrath was always very uplifting and inspiring, and could always push me to want to do better. He was always a source of encouragement that I really needed at that time because I never really had that growing up.

Once I began working, I was able to focus more on my life, and I slowly stopped associating myself with some of my friends. I was able to graduate early at the age of 17 from ACCESS. I began taking classes at Golden West College and Orange Coast College.

I graduated from Orange Coast College with an associate degree in liberal arts in 2011. Shortly after, I moved to Salt Lake City and began college at the University of Utah. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics and I was the first person in my family to graduate college.

Now, I currently work for a major airline as a flight attendant, and I also have a double career, working for another financial institution in their escalated complaints department.

I also have a son who is 3, and now I am a single mom to a beautiful and amazing child. I am fortunate enough to be able to provide for my son and he attends a private school. He is completely excelling at his school and it makes me a really proud mom to be able to provide for him, as my parents were unable to for me in an emotional, mental and physical capacity.

Resiliency: A powerful weapon to fight ACEs

Resiliency has always been my strong trait. However, I never realized it until I became an adult. When we are children, we don’t understand the factors that play into our lives, such as the emotional, economic and social factors. Children are constantly reacting to their environment, whether that be physical or emotional. I really didn’t have a choice when I was growing up except to survive.

I purchased my first home when I was 22, and people often tell me that that was so amazing. Well, I realize now that I did it because I didn’t have a solid family home life ever, and if I didn’t purchase my home, I really wouldn’t have a place to live. It was a survival tactic.

My entire life I was constantly seeking control and stability in an environment that was not. Now, as an adult, it has given me the resilience that was needed to perform and to continue living my life because my life growing up was a constant need for attention, validation, stability, etc. Resiliency is something that I will always have in my life, and even though ages 12 to 18 were so turbulent, I will always appreciate the positive factors that helped shape my future as an adult.