Cameron Brooks (right) and Charlie Caswell, founder of 3V Leaders program. (Photo: Erica R. Williams)

As Cameron Brooks neatly wrapped his last Christmas gift, a slight smile formed on his face as he proudly examined his work. He and his high school peers had wrapped hundreds of toys that day to distribute to students at a nearby elementary school.

“It feels good to be able to give back,” 17-year-old Brooks said. “Because I know how it feels to not get anything for Christmas – especially in the last four years.”

Brooks’ voice trailed off before admitting that he’d spent the last four Christmases away from his family – in a juvenile detention center. This will be his first time home for the holidays since 2014. 

“Just imagine being all alone on Christmas as a kid. I eventually just stopped calling home because it hurt too bad,” Brooks said. 

Cameron Brooks (right), his mother Melvia Toney and his siblings are in full-smile mode. (Courtesy photo)

As if it were too painful to discuss, he quickly turned the conversation back to the toy giveaway. 

 “I’m just glad we were able do this for the kids,” he said. “They’ll know someone cares about them. 

“I wish I would have had that when I was younger.”

Brooks is candid about a tumultuous childhood filled with a series of traumatic events. He was molested at the age of six, followed by the death of a close family member and the incarceration of his father when he was nine. As a result, the teenager said he spent most of his adolescence filled with rage and battling depression. He said he even tried to take his own life on several occasions.

“I didn’t feel like anybody cared about me and I didn’t know where to get any help,” he said. 

Familiar with “how it feels to not get anything for Christmas,” Cameron Brooks puts the finishing touch on a wrapped gift. (Photo: Erica R. Williams)

Brooks eventually got in an altercation that landed him a four-year sentence at a juvenile detention center in Arkansas. Now the high school senior finds solace in telling his story. He credits his participation in the 3V Leadership program, a grassroots initiative, guided by research and studies centered around Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).  It’s how Brooks met Charlie Caswell, the founder of the program, who he’s now dubbed his mentor.

 “I never had a person who I could talk to about my issues until I got in this program and met Mr. Caswell,” Brooks said. “My life has changed for the better.”

Caswell, a former pastor, has been a community advocate for years. In 2015, he was sent to a training by then-Shelby County Mayor Mark H. Luttrell Jr. to learn about ACEs.

ACEs refers to traumatic events that occur in an individual’s life before the age of 18. These experiences can cause severe and lasting repercussions, including depression, anxiety, poor physical health, partaking in risky behavior and substance abuse. It can even affect a child’s ability to learn.

Caswell said he was once one of those kids affected by trauma.

 “I’d been through a lot and learned that I had my own traumas and it had affected my life. I knew I needed to heal from that,” he said. “After attending that training, I had the language to assist me in my work, and I haven’t looked back since.”

Caswell went on to gain his ACEs certification, allowing him to train more than 900 people this year. He frequently speaks at events and schools about the effects childhood trauma has on children. 

Cameron Brooks and his high school peers wrapped hundreds of gifts destined for young people in need of helping hands. (Photo: Erica R. Williams)

The ACEs crusader has also worked with Tennessee State Sen., Katrina Robinson (D-Memphis) to craft a bill that asks schools to consider traumatic experiences in students’ lives when determining discipline practices. The bill was signed into law earlier this year.

Caswell grew up in the Dixie Homes Projects, a housing development marked by violence and poverty. He said he shares many of the same experiences as the students he serves. He experienced abuse as a child and was surrounded by violence – including witnessing several close friends shot and killed. 

Caswell said his life would be different if he hadn’t met former Memphis Police Chief Toney Armstrong, a rookie cop at the time who was dating Caswell’s older sister.

“He told me that I didn’t have to end up like my brother- in jail. And that I could do more for my life. After a while, I started believing him and making different decisions.”

Caswell said the mentorship Armstrong provided for him is what he seeks to give students like Brooks. Although 3V Leadership is in it pilot phase at MLK College Prep in Frayser, Caswell hopes to have it in most local schools within the next two years. 

For now, he’s happy with the progress he and his team have made so far. Brooks’ mother, Melvia Toney, agreed.

“I’ve seen Cameron change because of this program, because at one point he was really uncontrollable. I just couldn’t help him. He was so angry,” Brooks’ mother, said. “Now he’s making different decisions and he’s really trying. My family is blessed to have Mr. Caswell and his team.”

Caswell said he was drawn to Cameron because he reminded him of his younger self.

“I used to be that kid filled with rage and not knowing what to do with it,” he said. “Now I get to train students to be trauma informed so that they can first heal themselves and then help others.”

For Caswell, who works tirelessly to spread ACEs awareness, the reason for his commitment to the work is simple: he doesn’t want kids to go through what he went through.

“I know if they knew better, they would do better,” he said. “Now it’s up to adults to not ask kids, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ but instead, ‘What happened to you?’”

As for Cameron, who stood in line greeting kids and handing out toys, Christmas came early this year.

“I’m just glad that I found the 3V program and glad that we are able to make kids smile this Christmas. This is really the best Christmas present that I could ever receive.”