'Constant and healing': Iowa State professor consults YSS nature-based trauma-informed design

Danielle Gehr
Ames Tribune
Iowa State professor Julie Stevens prepares a hands-on activity for YSS youth. Stevens, a landscape architect professor, is consulting the organization on trauma-informed environmental design for its future nature-focus youth recovery campus.

The partnership between YSS and an Iowa State landscape architecture professor started with a donation. 

YSS CEO Andrew Allen noticed a generous donation from a name he didn't recognize as he wrote thank-you notes and decided to give the donor a call instead. The man on the other end said credit goes to his wife, Julie Stevens, a landscape architect professor who specializes in trauma-informed care. 

With a $13 million YSS 70-bed recovery campus on the horizon where nature is the centerpiece, Allen asked to speak with Stevens. The campus in Cambridge is set to break ground on August 9.

"We just hit it off," Allen said, "In a way that you knew that there would be a connection and synergy between her expertise in the area of design and trauma-informed care, and our desire to create a brand new space related to impacting youth from across the state."

More: 'My life was saved by YSS': Leaders hope $13 million campus makes central Iowa a destination for youth recovery

Trauma-informed design incorporates lenses of psychology, neuroscience, physiology and cultural factors into a space. Through her work, Stevens focuses on how nature can promote healing for her clients. 

While a person may look at a child enjoying a park and think that is great because they are getting exercise and fresh air, Stevens said her colleagues may note how the kid is expressing their protective factors or developing relationships. 

With Iowa State human development professor Tricia Neppl, Stevens is developing a research pilot project in which they will explore how students build healthy relationships and improve coping and self-regulation skills using nature, and how these programs impact relationships with caregivers and their parents. 

"I think part of what we're really missing as a society is a groundedness that we get from being in nature and connecting with natural spaces," Stevens said. "The last couple of years dealing with the pandemic showed us a couple of things. One is that when we found ourselves indoors and online a lot, then the need for those nature connections became greater."

Stevens first used these concepts at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, where 30 acres of barren land turned into a haven of trees, native plants, produce and wildlife. 

This experience helps inform Stevens' current project with YSS — though she said it is important not to conflate both projects. The new campus will offer mental health and addiction services, emergency shelter and crisis stabilization for youth. 

"This is not a program for bad kids, delinquent kids or troubled kids. This is a program for kids who have been abused and neglected," Allen said. "These are kids that need our love and support and encouragement."

For subscribers: How Ames' YSS pioneered shelter homes for at-risk youths in Iowa

Outside, Stevens said students can build coping mechanisms and relationships through attunement, or shared rhythms such as passing a basketball back and forth with someone.

The outdoors create natural distractions, such as the sounds of leaves blowing or birds chirping. These atmospheric qualities can ground a person in that moment, Stevens said. Being outdoors also brings a person's heart rate and cortisol down.

"For a lot of these kids, that trauma is happening largely at home, or in their communities or schools," Stevens said. "They're not having their social, emotional, physical needs met, and they're seeking out ways to buffer that, then they're seeking out unhealthy ways to buffer that."

The campus is designed to promote a healthier buffer for these students, so they can use nature to bring themselves back from dysregulation. The campus will be specifically designed so students will be surrounded by nature as they walk from building to building. 

Stevens fills her life with outdoor pursuits as an avid gardener, biker, hiker and camper. 

"The thing that you have that is constant and healing, it's nature. Everything else is temporary," Stevens said. "Their counseling group counseling is an hour-long, and that's temporary. It's powerful ... But when that's not there, what's there?

"Nature is always there as a healing opportunity."

Current YSS (formerly known as Youth & Shelter Services) clients are part of the design process, which has been empowering for them, Allen said. They went to the College of Design to work with Stevens' students. As an outsider, Stevens said YSS clients often share their backgrounds, making the work both "heartwarming and heart-wrenching."

"Some of their situations would make you so angry. They made me so angry that there was nobody there to protect them ... So much of our society sees these kids as someone else's problem, and it's everybody's opportunity," Stevens said. "I love nature, so I'm bringing nature to these kids."

Danielle Gehr is a politics and government reporter for the Ames Tribune. She can be reached by email at dgehr@gannett.com, phone at (515) 663-6925 or on Twitter at @Dani_Gehr.