Kenneth Ponds Named Vice President of Oneness and Special Advisor to the President

To further Starr Commonwealth’s commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion, Kenneth Ponds has been named to the newly created position of vice president of oneness and special advisor to the president.

As an executive member of the cabinet and advisor, Ponds will provide expertise and guidance to the organization on topics and issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion in all forms, furthering Starr’s core belief in the oneness of humankind. He will assist Starr Commonwealth in efforts to achieve its mission and vision on an organizational level as well as in its offerings and services.
“For years, Starr has recognized that experiences of racism, toxic hierarchy, and oppression are experiences of individual, collective, and intergenerational trauma,” said Starr President & CEO Elizabeth Carey. “While we increased our efforts in this critical work, in the wake of recent social injustice and violence over the past few years, we knew we had to do more.

“From his professional experience to his heart and passion, I am confident Ken is the perfect person to spearhead our recommitment and guide the entire organization ever closer to achieving true oneness of humankind.”

Ponds previously served as campus chaplain for 40 years, and has since played a key role in Starr Commonwealth’s Glasswing Racial Healing program. Glasswing has been a cornerstone of Starr’s equity, diversity, and inclusion work since 1996, and has helped communities across North America “embrace the value of diversity with dignity.” Ponds will continue his contributions to Glasswing from an executive level as advisor, counselor, and mentor for staff.

“It’s an honor to have this wonderful opportunity to help Starr continue its journey of equity,” Ponds said. “This has always been a core belief for Starr, and along with the opportunity to help young people in their spiritual journey is what attracted me to Starr Commonwealth.

“This commitment to connection—with the ultimate goal of love that Floyd Starr envisioned over 100 years ago—is one that lives close to my heart. I am honored to help Starr and its partners continue to grow and making love visible in the lives of those we serve.”

Starr Behavioral Health

Meet the Clinician: Sara Gariepy

My name is Sara, I’m an occupational therapist specializing in the treatment of children who have experienced trauma at any stage in development. My focus is addressing regulation through a sensory-based intervention approach.

My goal for the work I do with each family is to assist the child and their caregivers in improving their ability to identify the signs the body gives to indicate a need, as well as to implement activities, routines, and external supports to allow for the child’s improved successful participation in all aspects of life.

The best part about the work I do with kids is that it looks like a jungle gym of fun all while helping that child foster resilience and independence. My passion for my work is fueled through exploring and experiencing joy with the children and educating caregivers so they have the tools to be their little one’s secure and supportive base throughout the years ahead! The skills I address are foundations for learning and development, so my goal client population is between 3 and 8 years old, but these are lifelong skills that are never too late foster.

Meet the Clinician: Becca Gerlach, LMSW CAAC

Welcome to Starr Behavioral Health!  My name is Becca Gerlach, and I am the Director of Behavioral Health here at Starr. My specialty areas are LGBTQIA+ adolescents and adults, adult survivors of childhood trauma, and addictions.  I also offer clinical consultation and supervision for professionals to help you become a trauma informed clinician or clinic.

We are so excited to serve you and your family.  Our goal is to provide the highest quality care in the most accessible way so that you or your child can feel better and achieve any goal they have set for themselves.

Our state of the art facility is located in Harper Woods where we provide in person mental health and sensory occupational therapy services.  Our center is designed with kids in mind-we have the games, toys and tools to make therapy a safe, fun, sensory engaging experience to heal past trauma, or practice coping strategies to better navigate life’s everyday worries and struggles.

We also provide therapy online using HIPAA compliant Zoom so that anyone in Michigan can access high quality mental health services.  We provide virtual therapy to children as young as 3, and all ages beyond. Virtual therapy takes away the headaches of scheduling, issues with transportation and can go where you go.

It is a brave decision to seek help—I’m so glad you reached out and are looking to learn more about what we can offer you or your child.  We provide services to all members of the family if needed, so you don’t have to go to multiple locations.  We make scheduling work with your life so that you or your child can begin the healing journey.

For more information or to schedule your appointment today contact us at 248-308-4591, or email me at  I look forward to hearing from you!

Spotlight – Kathy Hart

As Starr Commonwealth continues to foster healing in 2019 through trauma-informed and resilience-focused care, we are celebrating the professionals who make our groundbreaking work possible, and who are driven to heal through their hard work in the field. Kathryn Hart, MA, director of Professional Training & Coaching and senior trainer, travels throughout North America providing trauma and resilience training to agencies and schools, including Trauma-Informed Resilient Schools and Healing Trauma and Restoring Resilience in Schools. She has dedicated her 25-year career to helping children and families in a variety of capacities. With a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Bowling Green State University and a master’s degree in professional counseling from Liberty University, her experience with youth and family services have encompassed both clinical and administrative roles.

Awareness for trauma-informed practices has been continuously growing over the last few years, what do you see as the greatest factors attributing to that rise?

More people are becoming informed about the link between physical health and mental health. The ACE [Adverse Childhood Experiences] Study, as well as Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’ subsequent campaign for behavioral health since are key examples of this. Additionally, childcare trends have changed from removing at-risk children from their homes and communities to keeping children in their homes and communities, and therefore, schools are seeing more problematic behaviors. This has resulted in schools asking for help in dealing with these behaviors in order to keep these young people with problematic behaviors in school.

How has that growing awareness shifted your perspective/strategy as a trainer?

As we learn more about the mental and physical effects of trauma and toxic stress through our work in our behavioral health clinics and other direct services for children, we’re able to apply those lessons to our courses. Because we’re constantly collecting more data, we always have a need to develop new content and resources to serve our trainers and customers with the latest research and information in the field of trauma and resilience. By offering our courses online, practitioners anywhere in the world can access this information through a medium that feels personal and polished. We also continue to utilize our 300 Certified Trainers across the globe to deliver our content at conferences, professional development days, and private consultations. The combination of these approaches has allowed Starr to ensure we remain on the leading edge of trauma-informed and resilience-focused care!

What barriers remain, whether in classrooms or communities as a whole, to ensuring trauma-informed practices are embraced and implemented universally?

Education about how trauma affects a developing brain is a huge barrier. I will hear comments like “everyone has challenges, they just need to pick themselves up and deal with it.” There is a common misbelief that it simply is a choice to let trauma affect you. This is not true; trauma is a body experience. Children who have experienced trauma need help with emotional regulation if it was never taught. Their brains are often wired for fear, to fight for survival. They often do not have access to their cognitive parts of their brain.

Sometimes the barriers are financial. Schools know and accept that children of trauma need more help from caring adults but do not have the finances to add additional staff or reset spaces to help children of trauma release their activation and regulate their emotions. As the health of our schools is vital to the health of our communities, Starr has found that local partners, such as community and education foundations, are excited to work to overcome these cost barriers. In many ways, the cost is even greater when we don’t fund training and resources to help children with trauma responses, as these issues lead to a need for more support staff, outside intervention, etc.

Another barrier I have observed is the need for teacher education around trauma and trauma-informed classrooms and schools. Many new teachers become overwhelmed with the behaviors in their classrooms and without the tools to help these children, the teachers experience burnout and leave the field.

So what are the solutions to these barriers?

Explaining the biology behind trauma and how children of trauma’s brains are developed really can create a mindset shift for teachers. No one goes into the education field to hurt kids; they just need to be educated more on the effects of trauma and be given the appropriate tools and resources to help. When they realize our cognitive functions literally shut down in times of stress, fear, or a trauma response, I start to see this “ah-ha!” moment as they begin to understand that behavior is communication. The child needs something to help them re-integrate the cognitive and sensory parts of their brain, because “stressed brains literally cannot learn.”

Another solution is for educators or professionals to understand trauma-informed practices not as another curriculum or behavior management system, but as a way of doing what they already do. This includes how we greet our students, measure behavior, structure recess and specials, and more. I think of it as universal care–not everyone needs it but it will hurt no one to do it AND will help our young people develop healthy and nurturing relationships.

You’re on the front lines across the country on a weekly basis, what are some of your favorite stories in the schools you’ve been to lately?

I’m so proud of a phys ed teacher who, in the past, was quick to kick a student out and send him to the office to deal with in times of behavioral communication. After learning from Starr, he was able to calm the student down by getting on his level and taking deep breaths with him until he was ready to talk. A situation was de-escalated, and this student felt heard!
In general, teachers are reporting more and more the desire to resolve behavior issues instead of sending students out of class. Through these breakthroughs, they’re feeling refreshed and hopeful that they can help their students. Thus, more time is dedicated to learning and growth!

What are some quick tips readers can begin implementing into their care today?

  • Ask what has happened or what is happening to a student instead of what is wrong with that student.
  • See behavior as communication and ask yourself, “What is this student telling me?”
  • Greet every child by name every day.
  • Do not take problematic behavior personally. See it as communication for what a child needs.
  • Use a value-based classroom behavior management system that is based on community values versus shame-based compliance systems. And stop using publicly displayed behavior management systems like clip charts, point systems, and so on! Instead, track behavior data privately to learn what does and does not help that individual.
  • Praise the positive and the efforts, and dig for the gold in each child!
  • Ask for feedback from peers! Sometimes we need an objective opinion about behavior.

Where do you see trauma-informed education heading in the next 5-10 years, and what can teachers do now to stay ahead of the curve?

I see more schools understanding the importance of educating all staff in trauma-informed practices. What a teacher experiences with a student each day may be different than a bus driver, lunch attendant, or administrator. By all being trauma-informed, we are all able to remain constantly curious about every student, in every setting, every day. And it’s not only about identifying toxic stress, but the importance of building resilience in each child as well. Every interaction is an opportunity to help our children grow, and it takes a village. The sooner we begin looking at our students through a trauma-informed lens, the easier it is to be intentional in your care. Therefore, I see colleges and universities implementing curriculum that will produce trauma-informed educators by graduation.

What’s the next step in your schools’ trauma-informed journey? A full list of Starr’s courses is available at, or attend an in-person training at

Dr. Caelan Soma smiling with patient

Spotlight – Dr. Caelan Soma

As Starr Commonwealth continues to foster healing in 2019 through trauma-informed and resilience-focused care, we would like to celebrate the professionals who make our groundbreaking work possible, and who are driven to heal through their hard work in the field. For June, our spotlight is on Dr. Caelan Soma, PsyD, LMSW, and Chief Clinical Officer of Starr Commonwealth.

Dr. Soma provides trauma assessment and trauma-informed, resilience-focused intervention for youth utilizing evidence-based practices, including TLC’s SITCAP® model programs.

She has been involved in helping with the aftermath of disasters such as Sandy Hook, Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and others. She is has authored several books, the most recent, 10 Steps to Create a Trauma Informed School and Healing the Experience of Trauma: A Path to Resilience.

She is an internationally acclaimed speaker and trainer, and is the instructor for many Starr TLC courses, including Children of Trauma and Structured Sensory Interventions. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology at California Southern University, where she received the 2013 CalSouthern President’s Award.

In your years of experience, how has trauma-informed care evolved?

The research to support what we have suspected about trauma for many years is now abundant. And, this research spans across ALL disciplines (healthcare, education, psychology, social work, occupational therapy, etc.) When I began working in this field, we focused mostly on social workers and counselors. Today, trauma-informed care matters to everyone!

Neuroscientists have clearly shown through PET scans and MRIs, various portions of the brain becoming activated such as the deepest part of the brain (i.e. difficulty with self-regulation) or other brain structures becoming compromised such as the pre-frontal cortex (i.e. difficulty with decision making, problem solving) as a result of prolonged and exaggerated stress. This aligns with what we observe in children and adults with toxic stress exposure in all settings and how it impacts their physical health, behavior, emotions, ability to learn, socialize and be an active participant in life.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study has also helped validate the connection between trauma and not just emotional health risk but also physical health.

The field of epigenetics has also evolved significantly which helps provide hope to practitioners for even the most at-risk and traumatized children and adults. Why? Resilience!  Even in the most extreme cases, we have an opportunity to provide new experiences which can help change the actual physiology of a person’s body.

We are halfway through 2019, what have you been most excited about this year in your work?

Most exciting to me is the integration of all our knowledge and expertise of trauma-informed care with the 106 year history of resilience-focused practices of Starr. Every training, intervention program, and assessment focuses as much on healing trauma as it does on fostering and restoring resilience.

I recently worked with a child and his father. The child’s school told the father and his son that he had a learning disability and ADHD. After hearing about the child’s history of abuse and neglect before moving to the care of his father, it was obvious to me this child was being observed by his school and compared to his same-age peers from a lens that was not trauma-informed. I was able to help the child, his father and the school understand how trauma had impacted him and that while he was chronologically an 8 year old, developmentally he was more like a 5 year old and needed additional supports in his classroom setting to stay regulated and learn. Simple education for the father, child, and school shifted the mindset completely. In my opinion, this child did not have a learning disability or ADHD. The father and his son were happy to learn that nothing was “wrong” but that “things had happened” and those experiences were impacting him. But, more importantly, there was hope – there were simple things to do both at home, in school and through counseling to improve his school experience. 

What have been the most important developments in trauma-informed care recently?

In addition to the aforementioned interdisciplinary approach and application of epigenetics, I would add discoveries in mind-body connections and the polyvagal theory. In other words, the focus on how trauma, stress AND resilience live in our bodies, inside our central nervous systems, and that we have an opportunity, through various experiences and strategies, to not only process and heal trauma but restore and nurture resilience. We’ve found success implementing these theories through movement activities, yoga, mindfulness exercises, expressive arts, breath work, play, etc.

What are 2-3 quick tips readers can begin implementing into their care today?

Assess social-engagement.

  • For yourself:
    • Check in with yourself. When you work with clients/students are you in an activated state of arousal, a collapsed state and shut down or, are you engaged?
  • For your client/student:
    • Is the child or adult you are working with in an activated state of arousal, a collapsed state and shut down or, are they engaged?

Engage the central nervous system through the use of sensory based experiences.

  • Do you need to help engage your client? Play music, get up and move, take a walk, have them check in with the sensations they feel in their bodies, or invite them to take a few deep breaths.
  • Do you need to help your client get into a calmer state? Color in a picture, play in a tray of sand, or invite them to stretch or move into some calming yoga poses

To learn more from Dr. Soma, visit our courses page, featuring the recently updated Children of Trauma and Resilience. Dr. Soma is also featured in many on-site events, including our conference tour.