As a high school senior in Alabama, Donavon Ramsey got used to not having a permanent place to sleep.
If it was a friend’s couch one night, it could be his truck the next.
But never in that time did Ramsey think of himself as homeless.
That wouldn’t come until last year, when he returned to Tulsa.
“It sucked,” said the former Union Public Schools student, describing what it was like to rely on shelters for meals and a bed.
“You’re just — it’s like you have the word ‘homeless’ stamped across your forehead. I didn’t like how that felt.”
Ramsey, 19, was thankful, though, for the services available. Places such as the John 3:16 Mission and The Salvation Army kept him going, he said.
Finally, he found Walker Hall, a transitional home run by the Mental Health Association of Tulsa.
“It’s by the grace of God. That’s all I can say,” Ramsey said.
As is the case with many young people in Oklahoma, Ramsey’s transition from troubled adolescent to independent adult wasn’t easy.
He recently took an adverse childhood experiences — or ACEs — test and scored 6 on the 1-10 scale. Anything over 4 is considered very high.
Among the consequences for him have been depression and anxiety, for which he’s being treated.
The idea that traumatic childhood experiences may play a large part in future mental health problems is not a new one. But recent advances strongly suggest that it’s the primary factor.
Ramsey’s experience doesn’t surprise Lucinda Morte, a clinical coordinator with the Mental Health Association.
In a previous job, Morte counseled criminal offenders with mental health issues through Tulsa County’s Mental Health Court. Most, if not all, she said, had traumatic experiences as children.
“When I was in direct care, working daily with clients, the amount of trauma that was shared in my office — it’s things that I will take to my grave,” Morte said.
Lacking true understanding of themselves, too many sufferers accept that “I’m just a criminal.” They don’t get that “what happened to you growing up” plays a big part, she added.
On that point, Morte speaks with extra conviction. Her own family history — the complex depths of which she’s still just beginning to plumb — strongly backs it up.
As a young girl growing up in California, it never occurred to Morte to ask.
She hung out all the time at her friends’ homes. Why didn’t they ever come over to hers?
Years later, after she began to dig into her past, Morte finally learned the truth:
“Their parents would not allow them to go to my house,” she said. As they put it, “I was living with ‘a crazy person.’ ”
Today, as a mental health professional, Morte is better able to understand the role adverse childhood experiences play for those with mental health challenges because of her own background, she believes.
It took her a long time, though, to acknowledge that the emotional and sometimes physical abuse she once suffered was just that — abuse.
“I thought it was normal — that was how families were,” Morte said, adding that the troubles began after her parents divorced and an alcoholic stepfather entered her life.
In fact, when Morte first took an ACEs test about three years ago, she scored a 2, not associating her experiences with what the test questions described.
The truth began to dawn on her shortly after that, as she did some serious reflection and talked to childhood friends and family members.
She took the test again more than a year later. This time, she scored a 5.
“I sat down and read those ACE questions for what they really were,” she said. “It was very emotional for me.”
And concerning professionally. How could she go on treating sufferers, Morte wondered, when she had so much baggage of her own?
But this growing understanding of herself would work in the therapist’s favor.
In the end, understanding her background actually made her better at the job. “I was able to turn my experience into a way of healing others,” she said.
It’s gratifying “to know that I was able to, for at least a small part of their life, give them a glimmer of hope that things can and will be different,” Morte said, adding that she still attends mental health court graduations to show her support.
For many, she said, the key is “breaking down ‘what happened to you growing up?’ Because they didn’t become criminals overnight.”
Ramsey has done his best to stay out of trouble since moving into Walker Hall.
If he ever needs motivation, he just thinks back to last year and the eight days he spent in jail.
It happened after his vehicle broke down near Atoka.
Ramsey, who was trying to get to Tulsa from Texas, found himself stranded on the side of the road.
Frustrated at his luck — he’d recently put money into auto repairs — “I had a gram of weed, and I rolled me up a blunt,” he said.
He’d just taken a puff when he saw the police cars pulling up behind him.
Hauled off to jail, Ramsey eventually worked out a plea deal. He then caught the next Greyhound bus to Tulsa.
His plan had been to move in with a relative and then find work. But that relative, he discovered, was heavily into methamphetamine.
The drug held no appeal for Ramsey, who was turned off by “the way people looked when they were on it.”
He knew he couldn’t live there.
And that was how Ramsey suddenly found himself homeless.
It wasn’t just the fact of being homeless that he hated.
There was also the label that went with it.
After eight months of feeling hopeless and living in shelters, he found the Mental Health Association.
Now — and maybe for the first time in his life — Ramsey has good reason to believe the future is bright. Still a resident of Walker Hall, he’s enrolled in culinary school and is working toward becoming a chef.
“We call Donavon the ‘unofficial kitchen manager,’ ” said Lacey Howell, Walker Hall team lead, describing how Ramsey enjoys sharing what he’s learning at Platt College’s Culinary Arts School.
In addition to cooking for the group once a week — a requirement for all Walker Hall residents — “He takes the new guys under his wing,” Howell said, teaching them everything from how to sanitize kitchen items to the proper thawing of meat.
Ramsey showed a couple of residents on special diets how to work within their restrictions, including how to make a turkey burger.
Ramsey grew to like cooking as a child, when he used to help his mother in the kitchen, he said.
Now it’s a real career possibility.
Since arriving at Walker Hall, Ramsey has also begun to learn more about himself.
That growing self-knowledge includes how events from his past continue to shape him.
The strikes against Ramsey, which contribute to his ACE score, start with a lack of stability. A native of New Orleans, as a boy Ramsey moved back and forth frequently among Louisiana, Florida and Oklahoma, staying with relatives while his mother battled serious illness.
When he was 14, his mother died, he said.
He continued to bounce around and eventually landed in Geneva, Alabama.
He moved in with a family member there. But it didn’t last, and Ramsey ended up spending his last few months of high school sleeping on friends’ couches, in his truck and in a space that a church provided for him.
Given his prospects at the time, Ramsey can’t help but feel grateful at where he is today.
“I tell people I’m going to be the next Chef Ramsey,” he said — a riff on TV chef Gordon Ramsey.
But while he now has direction in life, many questions are still ahead.
After graduation from Platt, he hopes to find work and then get a place of his own and a car.
“I want a routine. I’m tired of surprises in life,” he said.
He added, “I want a routine but while still having fun.”
For any other young people facing circumstances like his, Ramsey offers encouragement.
“One of the things that kept me going,” he said, is knowing that “it’s up to me to make my life” better. “If I give up now — give up and let life have its way with me — that’s worse to me than struggling.”
Liberation Meanwhile, Morte’s personal journey to healing — the one she so long deferred — continues.
For years, “I just stuffed it. That’s what mental health professionals do. We’re about helping other people,” she added, noting that it’s easy to neglect your own “emotional and spiritual health.”
Thinking back on her youth, Morte can identify things that served to counteract, at least partly, the negativity at home. There were supportive teachers along the way and other caring people who helped. School itself became a “coping outlet,” she said, adding that she focused on her studies and made straight A’s.
Her experience is consistent with what scientists have learned about counteracting the harm done by ACEs.
“Protective and Compensatory Experiences” — or PACEs, as they are known — have been shown to act as buffers or insulators against trauma and even to promote healing. Most effective seems to be the unconditional love of a parent or mentor, but PACEs also include exercise or physical activity and hobbies or clubs.
In the end, the factor that most likely saved Morte was a complete change in environment. She was able to escape the home life and stepfather she’d grown to hate.
When she was 13, her biological father was granted full custody of her.
She remembers how liberating it felt.
A final, symbolic act of liberation would come many years later.
Morte had kept a secret journal of the things that were happening at home. It was used in court in helping the judge make his custody decision.
Before she moved to Oklahoma in 2011, “I burned it,” she said of the journal. “I put it in the fireplace.”
“It was the best feeling,” she added. “A release. There was a lot of emotion.”
It is the end of another challenging day at McClure, a Tulsa public elementary school tucked into a neighborhood where residents worry about low income and high crime. Physical education teacher Mike McShane spots one of his students walking through the gymnasium.
“Thanks for that letter you wrote me. It meant a lot to me, dude,” McShane tells the little boy. “Your future is very bright. I love you. I’ll see you tomorrow!”
“What we see in homes where there’s trauma is there’s no language,” McShane says as the child departs. “There are no conversations that maybe you and I took for granted and got to have with our parents and extended family about the future and about education and about life.
“Then a lot of the behavior challenges that we see is because of the trauma that’s been experienced. The way we negate that is by building relationships.”
McShane is in his fifth year at McClure. When he started, he might have considered a more rigid “you’d better listen” approach.
“There’s still some value in that, but we need more than just discipline,” he says. “There are so many different experiences and developmental issues going on in an elementary school. We need to create a relationship with these children and let them start to become a more active participant in the conversation about their life.”
McShane has those conversations with his students in front of a gym wall decorated with pictures of Muhammad Ali, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Serena Williams and Simone Biles, among many others. He works his way down to another display titled “Path to College,” then to another about nutrition.
“From the wall, we meditate. That’s a huge tool for us. We practice yoga. We play,” McShane says. “Humans, and especially children, are designed for play.”
McShane is encouraged by McClure Principal Katy Jimenez, by her perspective.
“We have mandatory meetings every Monday after school. Once a month, we do diversity chats where we’re learning about the trauma some of our students are going through,” he says. “We’re kind of on the ground level with a lot of young people, so we have a huge opportunity to connect with them and bridge.”
McShane revels in the fact that as a PE teacher he sees the entire student body. That enhances the effect he can have as an adult influence.
How does he know he is making an impact?
“I don’t know. I hope,” he says. “I can show you a note I just got where a kid wrote it out. ‘Hey, coach, the conversations we’re having, I wouldn’t have passed my assessments if it wasn’t for you talking to me about the challenges of stress and how it affects us and affects our performance.’ Every once in a while you’ll have a student come back and say, ‘Hey, you’re helping.’
“At the same time, every once in a while you’ll see students in the seventh or eighth grade that you wish you could have helped more. Some of that stuff is out of our hands. You just keep showing up and doing your best.”
OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Kevin Stitt has asked tribes to renegotiate gaming compacts, but some fundamental differences of opinion could affect the process.
In a recent letter to tribes, Stitt said the compacts expire Jan. 1, 2020, and will not automatically renew.
Matthew Morgan is chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association.
He said the compacts contain an evergreen provision but do allow either side to renegotiate.
“Should either party not be satisfied with those discussions, the compacts will automatically renew for another 15-year term,” Morgan said.
Mark Burget is Stitt’s general counsel.
“We have a disagreement,” he said.
Burget said that unless there is some action by the state or a court authorizing Class III gaming after the effective date of the compact, the compact does not renew.
There has been no state or court action, Burget said.
If the state’s interpretation is correct, Class III gaming would have to cease if there is not a new compact, Burget said.
Class II includes electronic bingo, while Class III includes slot machines, roulette and craps.
In a recent opinion piece, Stitt said that in order to incentivize the industry 15 years ago, the agreement called for an “exclusivity fee” starting at 4% and topping at 6% of revenues received.
While the rate was reasonable and fair at the time, Oklahoma’s current fees are now the lowest in the nation, Stitt wrote.
“Today, most state-tribal compacts around the country provide for exclusivity fees to the state of 20 percent to 25 percent,” Stitt wrote.
Burget was asked whether Stitt is seeking to increase the fees.
“What I believe he said is these agreements are 15 years old and we need to take a fresh look at them in light of what the market rates are in surrounding states and around the country,” Burget said.
Former State Treasurer Scott Meacham negotiated the original compacts under the administration of then-Gov. Brad Henry.
Meacham said exclusivity pertains to games that can be offered, number of games, hours of operation and caps on games.
“The more you give a tribe where they are the only ones that can do this without any sort of limitations, the higher you can charge in general for an exclusivity payment,” Meacham said.
He said it was important that tribes had some long-term stability after making huge investments in casinos and other facilities.
“So the compact has a pretty narrow parameter of what can and can’t be negotiated at renewal,” Meacham said.
Morgan said the revenue fees are “justifiable and well calibrated for this market.”
He said the current compacts offer limited Class III gaming.
“Sports betting is a topic of conversation,” Morgan said. “Currently, it is not allowed in the state. That does provide some economic incentive to tribes to be able to offer that game. That economic incentive will vary from tribe to tribe on what that opportunity is worth to them.”
Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief James Floyd issued a statement on the issue Tuesday afternoon:
“As with all governments with whom the Muscogee (Creek) Nation interfaces, we approach each collaboration as an alliance that is mutually beneficial to our citizens and to the communities in which we serve.
“The tourism industry is a significant contributor to the state’s economy and our capital investment in the hospitality and gaming industry is only one way the Muscogee (Creek) Nation directly supplements state, county and city operating budgets.
“As the fourth-largest tribe in the U.S., we reinvest in Oklahoma and in Oklahomans. We create jobs where there were none, we build hospitals where others have closed, we rehabilitate aging roads and bridges, and we redevelop land that evolves into future businesses. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s annual economic impact on the State of Oklahoma is $866 million through these programs and more.
“A successful collaboration between partners requires dialogue and thoughtful discussion to better understand the full impact, both positive and negative, of any modifications to our current contribution.
“It is simply too early in these conversations to speculate on Gov. Stitt’s interpretation of the compact agreement as we have not had the opportunity to formally meet on this topic.”
Burget was asked if the state was prepared to expand gaming in exchange for increased fees.
“I have no way of answering that,” he said, adding that several factors come into play.
Meanwhile, the state has put out a request for proposals to contract with individuals or firms with a proven track record of negotiating tribal-state gaming compacts in multiple states.
The request for proposals says the successful bidder will have experience and knowledge in the following areas: Indian gaming; commercial gambling; sports betting; horse racing and off-track betting; internet gaming; fantasy and daily fantasy sports; riverboat gambling; and lotteries.
WPX Energy's 260,000-square-foot tower will be built on the block of property where the old Spaghetti Warehouse was located.
Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado and County Commissioner Ron Peters reiterated their support for the Sheriff’s Office’s participation in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement 287(g) program on Tuesday, with Regalado saying those who oppose the partnership are “anti what’s right.”
Under the 287(g) program, some people being held in the Tulsa County jail on certain charges may be held for immigration officials once local charges are resolved.
Opponents of the Sheriff’s Office’s participation say immigrants, legal and illegal, are being harassed and jailed for minor offenses such as burned-out tail lights.
Regalado forcefully denied that, telling the Republican Women’s Club of Tulsa County on Tuesday that only people charged with serious crimes have their residency status checked.
He said the “least serious” charge triggering a 287(g) check is “multiple DUIs,” or driving under the influence. A database kept by the Sheriff’s Office seems to confirm that, and Peters said about half of those held in recent months were charged with DUI.
Regalado said 2% of those held at the county jail fall under the 287(g) program.
“Two-eighty-seven-g is not anti-immigrant,” Regalado said. “It’s anti-criminal.”
Regalado seemed particularly steamed about a letter to the editor of the Tulsa World that asked whether deputies might join in the “pre-dawn raids” on suspected illegal immigrants promised by President Donald Trump.
“Not only is it a lie, but it creates a frenzy and, quite frankly, fear in our immigrant communities,” Regalado said.
Opponents of the program argue that that is exactly the point — that simply being part of anything that links local law enforcement to ICE makes legal and illegal immigrants less likely to cooperate with officials or to report crimes, thus counteracting the stated purpose of removing dangerous people from the community.
Regalado said that is not the case as long as people — and especially women — understand that reporting a crime will not lead to deportation.
He said women are sometimes reluctant to report abuse by a partner for fear that the partner will be deported, but he said there are support services for women and children in such situations. In any event, he said, they should not remain in unsafe relationships.
“I hear we are tearing families apart,” Regalado said. “Every day at Tulsa County jail, we have families torn apart. American citizens, families, being torn apart because of crime, … mental illness, substance abuse. … It’s not us tearing them apart, folks. People have to take responsibility for their actions.”
Peters echoed Regalado, saying local officials have an obligation to remove dangerous people from the community and to cooperate with federal authorities.
Peters and Regalado’s audience was a friendly one. The club organized support for the 287(g) program at a recent Tulsa County Commission meeting, and on Tuesday, Peters and Regalado promised to notify the organization if it needs to show up at meetings or events in the future.
WPX Energy's 260,000-square-foot tower will be built on the block of property where the old Spaghetti Warehouse was located.