Happy Together/shutterstock
Happy Together/shutterstock

Crystal Maggelet has mainly devoted her small family foundation’s resources to increasing educational opportunities for young people. But when she learned about the devastating impacts of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, it became clear to her that these toxic stressors early in life are a daunting barrier preventing young people from thriving.

“If kids don’t have a proper start, if they face trauma early in life, they aren’t going to benefit—no matter how good their education is,” she said.

Maggelet prefers to operate behind the scenes, not one to have her family’s name emblazoned on buildings. But she was happy to talk about her recent $10 million gift in support of Intermountain Healthcare’s “Healthy Kids” program, a project she recognizes as critical to her foundation’s mission of giving young people a chance at a better future.

Intermountain Healthcare, a Utah-based, not-for-profit health system, recently announced Healthy Kids, a program designed to address the impacts of ACEs, which can lead to long-term detrimental health and psychological outcomes, according to a growing body of research. Healthy Kids will offer both interventions to counter the effects of ACEs, and preventive programs to strengthen families and communities.

Maggelet is in good company as she begins to prioritize childhood trauma. A growing lineup of foundations is tackling ACEs—from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to lower voltage names like St. David’s Foundation, the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, and the Tauber Family Foundation, as IP has previously reported.

Moving upstream

Research has made it clear that Adverse Childhood Experiences, toxic stressors including abuse and neglect, can have effects that last a lifetime. According to the CDC, “ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance use problems in adulthood. ACEs can also negatively impact education, job opportunities, and earning potential.”

But the impact of ACEs don’t have to be debilitating, according to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard: “There is a spectrum of potential responses to ACEs and their possible chain of developmental harm that can help a person recover from trauma caused by toxic stress.”

Neal Davis, Intermountain Healthcare’s medical director of pediatric community-based care, agrees: “The good news is that if we proactively address risk factors, kids have a better shot at long-term health and success.”

The Healthy Kids initiative will provide ACEs screening and evidence-based trauma therapy for children who show signs of serious stress. It will also address risk factors by supporting Nurse Family Partnership, an organization that connects pregnant mothers with regular visits from a nurse, as well as social services—support that lasts through their child’s second birthday.

Another component of Healthy Kids is Reach Out and Read, which helps strengthen bonds through reading. As part of the program, physicians give children books at well-child visits, and encourage (and model) daily reading time by parents and caregivers.

Davis points out that Nurse Family Partnership and Reach Out and Read are deceptively simple programs; they are also evidence-based, and have been shown to fortify connections between parents and children and build resilience, which helps protect kids from the debilitating effects of ACEs. (Reach Out and Read also boosts language ability and school readiness).

Davis sees how much children love receiving books—and how much the doctors he works with love giving them. “When you talk to pediatricians or pediatric providers that participate in the program, it’s one of the favorite parts of our day,” he said. “I asked one family if they had any books for their kids, and they said, ‘Yeah, we do, we have the ones you gave us, and the kids use them and they wear them out.’”

Davis initially planned to go into internal medicine, but, he says, his experience in medical school steered him in a different direction. “I saw so many adults with diseases and I’d think to myself, ‘the time to help these folks was four decades ago.’”

Davis remembers one patient who he treated for alcohol-related liver disease. “You’d see the same person five or six times, and you’d think, ‘I’m glad I can be here to help this person and I wish I’d been there when he was a child, when there was the opportunity to change the trajectory.’ I realized I wanted to be able to get upstream and see if there was something that could make a difference early on. I think that connection was intuitive to me even before the ACEs studies came out.”

Giving back

Crystal Maggelet, who is soft spoken and friendly, doesn’t come from deep family wealth. Her parents both grew up with modest means (her mother’s family used an outhouse up until the time she went to high school). Her father started the Flying J chain of truck stops, which Maggelet merged with a convenience store chain after her father’s death. She now runs the Maverick chain, which has 340 convenience stores across the country.

Even though her father made a lot of money, Maggelet noticed that he didn’t give much to charity. “I watched my dad gain more and more wealth, and I noticed that he gave a little here and there but he didn’t give much.” Her father died in a plane crash at the age of 62, and she wonders if he would have given more if he’d lived longer—a common trajectory for wealthy donors of his generation.

Either way, Maggelet knew that she wanted to do things differently.  “My family has wealth—more, way more than we need—and I really wanted to give back. And I wanted to start with our own community, the intermountain west. We have stores in 11 states, so when I say ‘our community,’ I mean the intermountain west. And I feel really strongly about education. I think lack of education is one of the underlying causes of the division in this country.”

Maggelet’s foundation is small, run by family members and a few support staff, and they don’t have a website. To date, the foundation has primarily provided college scholarships to students across the region. The foundation gives about 75 scholarships a year, and just started a new program that will provide multiyear scholarships. Maggelet is also considering starting a tutoring program that Maverick employees and their families can access to improve school performance. And Maggelet co-chairs Intermountain’s broader $500 million “Primary Promise” campaign, which will create “the nation’s model health system for children” according to a press release.

Maggelet was reluctant to support the Healthy Kids initiative when she first heard about it. “My initial reaction was, ‘It’s about health, not education,’” she said. “I’m interested in education.” But the more she studied the issues, the clearer it became clear to her that, for many kids, a college scholarship is too little, too late.

“I realized that helping kids get a better start very much fits with our education focus,” she said.