Jessica Orvis is telling you about her work with children, her efforts to blunt their trauma, when you notice her tattoos. Is she making a statement?
No. She is providing an outlet to connect with these children.
“A lot of times with kids, you have to build rapport and you have to have buy-in,” she says, peering at a design on her forearm that looks like a science class diagram.
She can tell the kids affected by trauma, the ones with high ACE (adverse childhood experience) scores, about their brain cells and neurotransmitters. But it is better to show them.
She’ll use her tattoos and explain: “These are pathways. You lose your temper and go straight to fighting; your aggression and testosterone and adrenaline ones will be fatter. Right here. We’re going to put that one on a diet and get another one healthier. We’re going to exercise it and use it. Next time you’re mad, we’re going to do this instead. If you do it enough times, it’ll get fat, and the fat one will get skinny.
“These colors are serotonin and oxytocin and dopamine. Those are the things that get you addicted and get you happy or depressed. What are the ones we need to get fat, healthier? What are the ones you need to muscle up? We want less of the colors like the depression. We want more serotonin. In your brain, this is what’s happening.
“They can see what I mean,” Orvis said. “They can make sense of it.”
Three years ago, Orvis made her first visit to Kendall-Whittier Elementary as part of the Healing Hearts Club, the Tristesse Grief Center’s six-week program for area public school students who have encountered trauma.
“They were haywire,” Orvis says of the children she first encountered. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, I don’t want to work with kids.’ I went back the next week, and they said, ‘We were hoping you would come back.’
“I said, ‘You were? You guys didn’t listen to anything.’
“‘You were so nice and you asked us questions about us and you let us talk.’
“I was like, ‘OK.’ I didn’t realize what I had done. I had no idea.
“By the third week, they asked me, ‘How many more times do you get to come?’ They were telling me things. ‘Do all moms do this? How come my dad does this?’ They had a grown-up for a whole hour who would talk to them and hear them. They were my little angels in disguise.
“Now, I can’t ever walk away from them.”
Orvis goes into schools throughout Tulsa. She goes to Union, Jenks and Bixby. Occasionally, she goes to Muskogee. She has been called to go to Stillwater and as far away as Missouri.
As an outreach therapist for the Grief Center, she sees students who have lost loved ones or had classmates commit suicide. She lets them ask questions and tell her things, like at Kendall-Whittier. She helps.
“Wednesday, I went to three different schools,” Orvis said. “They pull out the kids; we sit for an hour. Some are teenagers. We process and work with coping skills. Then it’s on to another school with first- and second-graders, and we color and do activities. Then I might go and do a continuing education unit where I educate a community on how to work with kids that have been through it.”
This is what resilience looks like. A child experiencing trauma has it in her to cope or power through. Sometimes, all it takes is a triggering mechanism, like a caring, stabilizing adult.
Sometimes, it takes a therapist with really cool tattoos.
“If anybody is going to be resilient, it’s a kid,” Orvis said. “There are days I hear things and my mind is just blown. What these kids have seen or have been told ...
“Then that same kid will give me a fist bump on their way out of a session or ask for my card when their friends aren’t around. They’re starving for somebody, and if they can find that person — there’s a lot of us out there — it can help tremendously.”