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Watauga County School System Bids Farewell to Social Worker and Community Advocate, Denise Presnell

Katie Warner, Yolanda Adams, Denise Presnell and Candis Walker spend a few final moments together at Hardin Park School before Presnell departs for her new teaching position at UNC-Pembroke.

By Sherrie Norris

Two days prior to her departure as social worker for Watauga County Schools, Denise Presnell was honored by Watauga County Schools for nearly three decades of dedicated service.

Local counselor, Suzi Woodard, right, with Dr. Paul Holden next in line, prepares to say goodbye to her colleague Denise Presnell during Wednesday’s reception in Presnell’s honor. 

An impressive crowd of faculty, staff, school board members and friends came together at the Margaret E. Gragg Education Center in Boone on Wednesday, Oct. 26, to offer their gratitude to Presnell for all she has done for countless children, families and colleagues in the school system and community, as well as to express their best wishes for her next journey.

In September, and nearing the completion of her Ph.D., Presnell accepted a teaching position in the social work department at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, where she will begin employment in November. 

It was with a mixture of emotions, both for Presnell and those who attended her reception — laced with laughter and tears — that her career in Watauga County was acknowledged and ending. “I wish I could take all of you with me,” she said to those gathered. 

On behalf of the school system,  Superintendent Dr. Scott Elliott thanked Presnell for her 29 years of “exemplary service” and referred to her as one who successfully bridged the gap between the schools and community. It was not only through her work with the schools, and in particularly Hardin Park, he pointed out, but also her work establishing and leading the Watauga Compassionate Community Initiative. Since its inception, WCCI has been successful in its mission “to promote health and resiliency in our community and to effectively prevent, recognize and treat trauma by creating safe, stable nurturing environments and relationships.”

This plaque was presented to Denise Presnell during a reception in her honor on Wednesday, Oct. 26, prior to her last day of service to Watauga County Schools on Oct. 28.

Elliott referred to Presnell’s work of not only “changing the lives of countless students, but also saving lives.”

Elliott said that while Watauga County Schools will certainly miss her, he said he could think of nothing better she could be doing than teaching other social workers at the college level.

Prior to the reception, Elliott told High Country Press, “I am very sad to see Denise go, but at the same time I am incredibly proud of her and know she will do great things at Pembroke. Her contribution to the development of our school social work program cannot be overstated. It seems as though she initiated or helped implement every major program or initiative between the school and community. Two areas that stand out to me are our compassionate schools initiative that led to the formation of the Watauga Compassionate Communities Initiative and her work in establishing the School Faith Collaborative that brings various churches in the community together with the common goal of supporting our schools. The entire community is going to miss her very much.”

Dr. Paul Holden, WCS Director of Student Services, shared, “Denise has been the model for school social workers in Watauga County. She has been a passionate advocate for students and families for 29 years. Denise became interested in trauma and how it affects students in their life and learning. With that knowledge about trauma, she became the driving force in schools and the community in addressing trauma and helping students to develop resiliency skills. The establishment of the Watauga Compassionate Community Initiative (WCCI) was by sheer force of her will to help her community become a state leader in trauma/resiliency efforts. In addition to her passion for the work, Denise is completely trustworthy: If she says she will do it, then it gets done. The community is indebted to her for her years of service and her leadership will be greatly missed. We wish her well in her new endeavors.”

Referring to her time with Watauga County Schools, Presnell said, “It’s the first job I had out of college. The teachers, administrators and superintendents, especially, all had high expectations for me and I wanted to meet those expectations. They’ve all helped mold me into what I am today.”

Local pediatrician, Dr. Clint Zimmerman, has a few parting words for Denise Presnell, knowing she has had a tremendous impact on many of his young patients and their families through the years.

Presnell first came to Boone with her family in 1977 and attended Hardin Park School for three years before moving to Abingdon, Va., where she attended high school. She returned to Boone for college and never left (until now) as she continued to climb the educational and career ladder. 

Presnell hopes to be remembered fondly as a great social worker and a community leader who cared. 

She believes Pembroke will be a good place for her, but Watauga County will always be close to her heart and mind.

On behalf of Watauga County Schools, Superintendent Dr. Scott Elliott expresses heartfelt compassion and gratitude to Denise Presnell (the epitome of compassion!) for her many years of dedicated service and sacrifice to the school system and the community, in general. 

She will be remembering much that has happened in her life, things that brought her to this point. And perhaps, the advice of her mother, a therapist in Virginia, will resonate for many years to come. “There is no limit to what you can do – stay open.”

Thank you, Denise, for the impact you have had on Watauga County. We wish you the best that life has to offer.

To read more about Denise Presnell and her life as social worker extraordinaire, plan to pick up a copy of the December issue of High Country Magazine when it hits the stands.