The Gazette: Mary Beth O’Neill’s guest column, “Iowa needs diverse foster families”

Guest column by Mary Beth O’Neill that appeared in The Gazette:

As an organization that spans the whole of Iowa, Four Oaks faces many needs in the coming year. While specific needs can vary widely by program and region, there is one critical challenge we see throughout the state: a shortage of foster families, especially those with diverse backgrounds.

Children in foster care thrive when they are placed in temporary homes that feel familiar to them. As children transition to foster care, it can be devastating to leave not only their family of origin but also the familiarity of the customs, traditions, foods, music and even language that is ingrained in the culture they know and understand. Children have an increased sense of belonging when their foster family shares their culture and can provide an environment that feels like their home of origin.

Studies have shown that placing children with families of similar ethnic or racial backgrounds helps promote a positive cultural identity, which contributes to higher self-esteem and lower rates of depression and anxiety. A strong cultural identity is good for overall mental health and helps children learn the skills to combat any adversity they may encounter in their lives.

We have seen the difference culturally diverse foster families can make to our children in foster care. Recently, a diverse Four Oaks foster family welcomed two elementary-age girls. Before they arrived at the home, the girls did not have the support they needed to care for their textured hair.

The new home with an amazing foster family had the knowledge and resources the children needed. The foster parents understood the importance of hair conditioning and maintenance in the culture they shared with the children and were able to support the children physically and emotionally through their transition into foster care.

The need for diverse foster families across the state is great. From our biggest cities to our most remote rural areas, Iowa needs foster families that reflect the culture or ethnicity of our children in foster care.

Can you be a home that welcomes a child with the support and resources they need to thrive? Visit to get started today.

Mary Beth O’Neill is president and CEO of Four Oaks.

Welcome to our new blog!

Welcome to our new blog!

Educators, we see you, and we hear you. The last few years have narrowed everyone’s windows of tolerance, and you need practical support over philosophical.

The purpose of this blog is to offer up some strategies that you will be able to implement and use tomorrow, all leading to a trauma-informed, restorative mindset that supports kids and yet holds them accountable. Check out what one of our partners is doing to promote regulation in their buildings below!

Mount Pleasant Community School District – Regulation Rooms

Click here to view the entire video


Training Opportunities

Our Education team are certified trainers in Restorative Practices and Mental Health First Aid. Click below to learn more about these training opportunities:

Click Here for More Information

We look forward to collaborating with you as we work together to support students’ academic success. Contact Education Director Megan Isenberg at or 319-366-1408 ext. 1305 to book our education services today!

Trauma-Informed looks like… Part #4 – Paying Attention to Basic Needs (while bowling)

My niece and nephew had never been bowling before. When my sister and I visited over Thanksgiving Break, we had a Grand idea: we take them bowling for the first time! The excitement builds. Both kids are happy to go, and they attentively listen to our “bowling safety” spiel. After ball #1, my nephew requests a snack. My old mindset takes over: “No. We’re literally on frame #1 of the bowling game. You had a big breakfast, you’re fine. You can wait until we’re done.”
So we move on. But he doesn’t. There’s a visceral change in his posture and face. It soon spirals into a deep disappointment of not getting a strike every time, and his attitude is quickly tanking: “I don’t really want to bowl anymore. I can’t do it. I guess I’m just bad at this.” Old self would roll my eyes, and I actually did find myself saying, “Dude, if you can’t have fun bowling, what can you have fun with?”

Game 1 ends, and his little sister is begging to play more games. Brother isn’t having it: “I don’t want to bowl anymore! I want to go to Culver’s!” My sister and I pause. Is he really that hungry? “Well buddy,” we say, “Do you want to order some food off the menu here?” His eyes light up. He requests the flatbread pizza, and he doesn’t just eat it; he snarfs it down in a few minutes and is still hungry. He says, “I have a much better attitude now,” and he proceeds to love bowling. 🙂

Others may look at this story and think, “You’re spoiling that kid and just giving him what he wants.”

I used to think the same.

However, if I had paid attention to what I know to be true about kids, we could have avoided the entire “bad attitude” situation, and all had a much better time. Behavior is an expression of unmet needs. In this case, my nephew’s need was under the “survival” category. He was hungry.

It turned into hangry – and we’ve all been there. I had to ask myself, Why did we say no? 

Was it because we didn’t want to deal with washing hands first?

Because we thought he should just be thankful we took him bowling?

Because we thought he just shouldn’t be hungry?

Because we weren’t hungry yet? 

It wasn’t because of the money. We were going to get them lunch anyway. So why did we say no?

At some point, we had to acknowledge that the kid was hungry, and it was inconvenient for us. Full stop. It was up to us as adults to think about what needs he was trying to communicate instead of telling him he shouldn’t have those needs.

If you want to know the end of the story, little sister got 5 more bowling games in (by herself), both kids laughed with unadulterated joy their first time at Mario Kart in the arcade at the alley, and when we left, both said, “Can we go bowling??” when they saw the bowling lanes again.

I am a work in progress, but I try to learn lessons and gain wisdom from my mistakes. I want to share these little moments openly with you.

-Brittany Roberts

If you’re interested in learning more about the Five Basic Needs, check out our helpful downloadable here, designed by our very own Kelli Mitchell!


We look forward to collaborating with you as we work together to support students’ academic success. Contact Education Director Megan Isenberg at or 319-366-1408 ext. 1305 to book our education services today!

Trauma-Informed looks like… Part #3 – Mindfulness

Trauma-Informed looks like…
Part #3 – Mindfulness

You don’t have to look very hard to find the benefits of mindfulness. Researchers are continuing to gather data that states some bold and encouraging claims that mindfulness can improve heart disease, decrease cognitive decline, improve immune function, and reduce myriad symptoms of psychological pain and distress. (Suttie, 2018)

Amazing, right?

When we talk about trauma-informed mindfulness, we understand that everyone has the capacity to benefit from mindfulness, but also that these practices may be activating for someone who has experienced trauma. Mindfulness’s goal is to cultivate a sense of calm and awareness while also creating a sense of safety for those who have experienced trauma.

It’s important to keep in mind that some cues often used during mindfulness activities (e.g. closed eyes, a quiet, darkened room, scents) have the potential to be triggers for those that have experienced trauma.

As a yoga and meditation/mindfulness teacher for almost 20 years, I’ve had many opportunities to learn. I recall burning incense as part of meditation practice early in my career. Growing up in a church that used incense, that scent has always been comforting and calming for me, and I wanted to share that with my students.

I’m thankful I had a trusting relationship with one student who shared with me later that incense was used by her abuser, and it was an extreme trigger for her. Was it my responsibility to know the triggers of every participant? No, but was it my responsibility to ask before using scents or touch and offer choice? Absolutely. It was a great lesson for me that for those who’ve experienced trauma, triggers are always a possibility. The intention is not to avoid everything that may cause stress, but to offer choices and tools to support individuals and an increased awareness that our experience is not everyone’s experience.

Kara Grafft

Suttie, Jill. “5 Science-Backed Reasons Mindfulness Meditation Is Good for Your Health.” Mindful, Mindful Communications & Such, PBC, 29 Oct. 2018,

Additional Resources
How Teachers Can Use Trauma Informed Mindfulness to Support Their Students
3 Trauma Sensitive Practices for Your Classroom

We look forward to collaborating with you as we work together to support students’ academic success. Contact Education Director Megan Isenberg at or 319-366-1408 ext. 1305 to book our education services today!

Trauma-Informed looks like… Part #2 – Deep Listening & How to do it

Trauma-Informed looks like…
Part #2 – Deep Listening & How to do it

Did your family have a “go-to phrase”? By that I mean, a phrase to get you out of whatever emotional stupor you were in at the moment. The go-to in our home was “You better pull that lip in, or a bird’s gonna poop on your lip.” Much like my parent’s generation, the expectation for my generation was to always be calm, happy, resilient, and to stay in line.

In education, we can experience strong student emotions. And often, we don’t feel like those emotions are justified or match the situation at hand.

Wow, that other kid accidentally bumped into you at recess, and now you’re bawling your eyes out.

Or, You’re having a panic attack because you have to call and tell your boss you’ll miss work today? It’ll take 10 seconds!

What seems big to them is not always a big deal to us, and that is the point. It’s difficult for us to understand the weight students attach to certain situations because we can’t step back into our childhood or adolescent shoes. Synaptic pruning has done its work, and the slow lessons of putting life in perspective have gradually found their way to us.

Our brains think differently.

However, as Brene Brown writes, “In order to empathize with someone’s experience, you must be willing to believe them as they see it and not how you imagine their experience to be.”

So, what can we do to acknowledge what kids are experiencing but still foster resilience? Deep Listening. Melissa King, a professor at Yale, writes that deep listening “is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her empty his heart.” Maybe it’s not so much about the advice we give to fix the problem as it is about just giving them space to pour out what’s inside.


Here are a few phrases to try:

“What is it like to be you today?”

“Do you want a listener or a problem solver right now?”

“You’re feeling _________ (observed emotion). Do you want to talk about it?”

“It seems like you’re having a hard time. What’s up?”

“It’s a struggle for you right now. Tell me more.”

And then…let them speak and pour it out. Sit with them in frustration, pain, anger, or sadness, without trying to fix it. Silence is ok; few words are ok; and if they are pouring out their heart to you, profanity might just be ok for the moment.

Now here’s the twist. The above post was inspired by a class I took this summer for adults. We often need just as much of this space to pour out our hearts as our kids do. Who can you be a deep listener for this week?

– Brittany Roberts

We look forward to collaborating with you as we work together to support students’ academic success. Contact Education Director Megan Isenberg at or 319-366-1408 ext. 1305 to book our education services today!

Trauma-Informed looks like… Curiosity and Humility in Conversations

Trauma-Informed looks like…
Curiosity and Humility in Conversations 

We often think that being “trauma-informed” is a bunch of strategies that take a lot of time and that “go soft” on kids. Yet, many of the practices and mindsets we have on a daily basis are actually trauma-informed! Being mindful of these moments, knowing what trauma-informed looks like, and then being intentional in acting it out can go a long way in creating an emotionally safe environment for kids and a less hectic day for us!

Being trauma-informed can look like being humble and curious in conversations, even when a person is rude, disrespectful, or dysregulated. Just a reminder: trauma-informed strategies work well with everyone, not just those people that we know have a high ACE score. Rather than giving you a “strategy,” I’ll share a recent real-life experience that deeply impacted my conviction for this process and that didn’t take any extra time.

I recently went on a trip with my nieces and nephews. One evening, my nephew was holding an iPad and asked if he could show me the computer he was saving up for at the end of summer. How sweet of him to want to show me his goals! Of course I said, “Sure.” A few minutes into this conversation, my niece enters the room and sees her brother with the iPad: “What are you doing with my iPad??” To which my nephew replies, “Britt said I could use it.” Thanks, kid.

This is the crossroads moment in this story. With the most angry face I’ve ever seen on this eight-year-old, my niece turns to me and says, “That’s MY iPad.” At that moment, I had a choice. My gut instinct was to become dysregulated and say, “You will not talk to me that way. You’re being disrespectful,” etc. While that response might achieve compliance, it doesn’t maintain connection. So instead I took a pause for a deep breath and said, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize this was your iPad.” I turned to my nephew: “It sounds like it’s really important to her that you ask permission before you use her iPad. Can you do that next time?” He answered yes, and I thought that was the end of the conversation. Then my niece added a comment: “Well, it’s just that I saw his iPad at home, and it had all these boogers all over it, and I didn’t want that on mine.” Whoa! Me either, kiddo! Behind her “rude” comment to me was a legitimate concern that any person would have acknowledged as worthy of some frustration. It was such a poignant reminder to me that being curious and humble (and regulated) can go a long way in digging up the root issues of a person’s behavior. Did the process take the same amount of time as if I would have shamed her for her comment? Yes. In fact, the outcome probably took less time. Might a conversation need to happen about how we react when we’re frustrated? Yes. Will it sound a lot different now that I know the legitimate issue behind it? YES.

The journey to being trauma-informed and restorative is a bumpy one. I may not have the same reaction next time. I heard a song recently that said, “I’m not yet where I’m going, but I’m a long way from where I was.”  So, I’m going to celebrate this win– a moment where my niece and I stayed connected and she felt like she could share the root of her concern. I hope you will celebrate your wins, too!

We look forward to collaborating with you as we work together to support students’ academic success. Contact Education Director Megan Isenberg at or 319-366-1408 ext. 1305 to book our education services today!

Closing the Loop: Knowing when to Connect is Key!

Closing the Loop: Knowing when to Connect is Key!

We work so hard to promote regulation in ourselves and in our students, but sometimes, dysregulation happens. It happens to us, and it happens to our students.

So, what do we do when the outburst occurs, feelings get hurt, or someone shuts down? We have to close the “loop” and reconnect by resolving and addressing the harm that occurred. But to close the loop, we have to communicate!

First of all, it’s imperative that everyone involved in a follow-up conversation is regulated and back to baseline.

Once regulation is achieved, it’s important to have a follow-up conversation. This doesn’t look like “shaming” or pointing fingers; rather, it’s most effective when curiosity is at its heart. We want to get ourselves and our students to the point where we can ask, “What needs to be done to repair the harm?” But the other pieces of regulation and curiosity must be in place first. Only then can we close the loop and focus on the resolution we so desperately need.

Below are two resources that can help you start the conversation.

Training Opportunities

Our Education team are certified trainers in Restorative Practices and Mental Health First Aid. Click below to learn more about these training opportunities:

Click Here for More Information


We look forward to collaborating with you as we work together to support students’ academic success. Contact Education Director Megan Isenberg at or 319-366-1408 ext. 1305 to book our education services today!

The Gazette: Affordable Housing Network plans to focus resources on family housing after selling Geneva Tower, Hawthorn Hills

From The Gazette:

CEDAR RAPIDS — The Affordable House Network, an affiliate of Four Oaks Family and Children Services, sold two low-income apartment properties in Cedar Rapids as part of a strategic plan to focus more resources on family housing, according to Debbie Craig, Four Oaks’ chief advocacy officer.

The sale of Geneva Tower, 310 Fifth Ave. SE, and Hawthorne Hills, 2283 C St. SW, to Edgemark Communities, the affordable housing division of Denver-based Edgemark Development, was finalized Friday.

Financial terms were not disclosed.

Both apartment buildings are income-based properties partially funded through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Edgemark has experience with managing affordable housing properties, according to it website, and has renewed the properties’ Housing Assistance Payments Contracts for the next 20 years, according to a news release from the Affordable Housing Network.

Craig said that because Geneva Tower is specifically designed for low-income seniors and adults with disabilities, and Hawthorne Hills is mostly single bedroom apartments occupied by single adults, the housing network leadership believed its resources could be better used in ways that more closely fulfill the network’s values.

“We just evaluated the current portfolio of all of our properties, and we wanted to ensure that it fit our mission and vision and values,” Craig said.

The housing network’s “mission statement is to provide decent, safe and sustainable housing that promotes stability for families. Because (the housing network) is an affiliate with Four Oaks, and our mission is to ensure children become successful adults, we really feel like all of our services … are focused and rooted on the family,” she said.

Craig said final decisions haven’t been made regarding new projects in which the housing network could invest to better support families, such as single-family homes or apartment properties with limited units and more space in each unit.

All the housing network staff at Geneva Tower and Hawthorne Hills have stayed with the network, Craig said, and will be working at the network’s other properties.

Mary Price, a resident of Geneva Tower who has lived there for 32 years, said she has seen a lot of changes at the apartment building, but they still always makes her nervous.

“I don’t like the unexpected,” Price said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”

Edgemark staff held a meeting with Geneva Tower residents earlier this week in which they assured them that rent wouldn’t be going up and went over some of the details of the staff changes, according to Price.

These are Edgemark’s first property acquisitions in Iowa, but the company has worked with low-income properties and not-for-profit sellers several times in other states, according to Aaron Metz, managing principal at Edgemark.

At Geneva Tower specifically, Metz told The Gazette the company hopes to improve operating efficiency and hire a service coordinator who could help elderly residents with activities such as buying groceries and getting to appointments.

Cedar Rapids Community Development Director Jennifer Pratt said in a statement the Geneva Tower and Hawthorne Hills developments meet a critical need in the community.

“We look forward to working with the new owners who will continue providing housing for these populations,” Pratt said.

Geneva Tower has had three fires in the past 20 years, records show, the most recent in February. Cedar Rapids District 3 City Council member Dale Todd said the city learned from the fire that managing a community of people with complicated medical and mental health needs requires a lot of supportive services.

“This is a costly proposition for a nonprofit or private developer. I am interested in how the new owner plans to make the numbers work in the future and how the current owners plan to support and make the transition a productive one for the tenants and the community,” Todd said.

See original story here

The Gazette: Geneva Tower, Hawthorne Hills sold

From The Gazette:

CEDAR RAPIDS — Two Cedar Rapids multi-unit buildings, Geneva Tower and Hawthorne Hills, have been sold to a Denver-based development company, the Affordable Housing Network said Tuesday.

Geneva Tower, whose apartments at 310 Fifth Ave. SE are rented to mostly low-income seniors and adults with disabilities, and Hawthorne Hills, an income-based housing facility at 2283 C St. SW, were sold to Edgemark Communities, the affordable housing division of Edgemark Development, the network said in a news release.

Financial terms of the sale, finalized Dec. 2, were not released.

“Edgemark Communities has extensive experience acquiring, improving and managing affordable housing properties throughout the Midwest, Southwest and Rocky Mountain region,” the release said.

“AHNI has been evaluating our current portfolio of properties to ensure each one is aligned with our mission — to provide safe and sustainable housing that promotes stability for families and individuals, while also creating community,” Mary Beth O’Neill, president and CEO of Four Oaks Family and Children’s Services and AHNI, its 501(c)3 affiliate, said in the release.

“AHNI vetted a number of potential buyers and chose Edgemark based on the depth and breadth of experience. We are confident that there will not be any gaps in services for the tenants,” O’Neill said.

Edgemark Development, founded 22 years ago, counts shopping centers, self-storage facilities, senior housing, retail and medical office buildings among its properties. Edgemark Communities is its affordable housing division.

Edgemark renewed the property’s Housing Assistance Payments contract for 20 years, the release said.

Four Oaks and AHNI’s human resources department has worked to retain all staff during this transition,“ according to the release.

See the original story here