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Community is the Solution: 2020 WCCI Conference Scheduled for May 16; Registration Now Open

Dr. Scott Elliott, Superintendent of Watauga County Schools, recognizes members of the planning team during the 2019 event at Watauga High.

By Sherrie Norris

Registration is now open for the annual conference of the Watauga Compassionate Community Initiative, scheduled for Saturday, May 16 at Watauga High School. Beginning at 8 a.m. and lasting until around 3:15 p.m., the event is expected to draw 500- 600 community leaders — educators, healthcare professionals, law enforcement personnel, parents and others — coming together to help individuals and families learn how to work through the pain of trauma to reach a state of resiliency.

This year’s conference, “Community is the Solution” will include an opening session, three workshop sessions with 40-plus breakout opportunities, lunch, an information fair and a closing keynote address.

The opening address will feature Brandon Wrencher, community activist, pastor and blogger on relationships, race and communities. The afternoon keynote speaker is Allison Sampson-Jackson, motivational speaker for trauma-informed care and treatment practices.

Denise Presnell, school social worker who has taken the lead with WCCI since its inception, described WCCI — and this conference, now in its fourth year — as an effort to turn Watauga County into a trauma-informed community.

“We don’t want to ever say trauma without saying resiliency,” she added, “because what we know about people is that resiliency can be built and strengthened. So, it’s not just our knowledge about trauma, but it’s also taking hold of our power to build resiliency in people so that they can heal and create a better life for the next generation.”

Presnell’s involvement and leadership in the initiative has also changed how she saw herself.

Raised in “a high level of childhood trauma,” Presnell admitted that she’s amazed that she’s able to do the things she does, as well as she does.

“It (the conference) is one of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had, both professionally and personally,” she added. “There’s a kind of energy that’s there. If you interact with people — you should be involved with this movement and be at this conference.”

One of many break-out sessions during the annual conference speaks to topics needed to help individuals overcome traumatic experiences in life.


Community is the Solution: It Takes All of Us

Presenll and fellow WCCI team members recently produced a promotional video to help the community better understand what the WCCI and upcoming event is all about.

Mollie Mellishrencken, Social Worker, Watauga County Detention Center, shared: “WCCI has affected me majorly, both in my personal life and in my work life. When I first got involved with the conference, I kinda felt like I had been struck by lightning. All of a sudden, my life made more sense and the lives of people around me suddenly made more sense. Whether it is a football coach, a convenience store worker or a waitress — whether we realize it or not, we all come into contact with people who have experienced significant trauma or adversity.”

She added, “For someone who has never been to the conference, I would describe it as real. I think it’s important for everyone to attend this conference, even if you don’t work in a helping profession.”

Marisa Cornell, with the Mediation and Restorative Justice Center, had this to say; “Trauma is relevant to all of us at any point of our lives. It has laid a foundation and established a shared understanding of what adverse childhood experiences are and what impacts and carries into adulthood. Anyone can come to the conference and find something they can learn from – whether they are an advanced practitioner, therapist of business owner who wants to know how to better support their employees.”

According to Crystal Kelly with The Children’s Council, “This is an issue that affects everybody. If it doesn’t’ affect you directly, then you are probably one or two people removed.”

Kelly described the conference as unlike anything she’s ever experienced. “There are hundreds of people who come together to make it happen. It is a place to network, learn and a place to heal.”

At the same time, however, Kelly emphasized, “In order for our community to be a place of healing, it’s something that’s going to take all of us.”

J.B. Byrch, representing Community Engagement at Boone United Methodist Church, said that WCCI has given him a way of thinking about how to work with kids that builds their resilience through being consistent, loving and patient.

“The kids have actually gone through a lot and are just trying to cope and are just trying to survive,” he said. “When you hear someone share their story — and them processing it on the other side — it helps you realize it’s the part of the story where they are still struggling”


Murray Hawkinson: Clinical Director, Daymark, shared, “Everybody is associated with folks who have this experience. It is not an “us versus them’ kinda thing. WCCI has helped to really highlight the importance of early experience and the significance of it in so many ways that really aren’t just a matter of mental health issues.”

More About WCCI

The mission of the WCCI is to promote health and resiliency in our community and to effectively prevent, recognize, and treat trauma by creating safe, stable, nurturing environments and relationships through education, advocacy and policy change.

The organization’s vision is for Watauga County to be a relationship-driven, compassionate, and resilient community that is knowledgeable, inspired, and empowered to prevent harm, promote well-being, and heal from adversity. 
For the last four years, especially, WCCI has been working tirelessly to lead Watauga County toward a healthier, more compassionate community through these annual events, as it strives to prevent trauma and build resiliency. Initially focusing on the younger generation, WCCI soon realized those childhood experiences have a profound impact on adulthood, as well, and has helped the sandwich generation – and others – learn to bounce back from traumatic experiences at any age.

The local efforts have not gone unnoticed, as Watauga County serves as a template for others across the state. Community leaders and educators near and far inquire on a regular basis about the initiative and seek to follow the example of Watauga’s success.

It all started in 2015 when a group of agencies primarily serving youth in Watauga County began to explore how to do a better job. Taking direction from the Center for Disease Control‘s “Essentials for Childhood” document, Presnell explained, they decided the first step would be to raise community awareness and provide education about trauma and resiliency.

Next, a State of the Child Forum — focused on childhood trauma and trauma-informed communities — was held in May of 2017. Approximately 350 people attended, representing key sectors from Watauga County and surrounding areas.  Afterward, a steering committee was formed to continue the work; today, that same core group known as Watauga Compassionate Community Initiative continues to meet monthly to further its mission of promoting health and resiliency in our community and to effectively prevent, recognize and treat trauma by creating safe, stable, nurturing environments and relationships.

Implementing these positive steps continues to be effective, confirmed by three successive annual events at which attendance and participation has continued to grow, if not double. And, yet, another one is just around the corner.

It takes “an army of people,” Presnell said earlier, “some 40-50 volunteers, including our speakers and session leaders” to accomplish the goals of the WCCI, but she knows it can be done. “We’re all volunteers,” she said, “nobody gets paid. We’re all in this together, working for the same outcome. We want our community to learn how to create safer relationships and a safer environment. It is our responsibility to not only bring awareness, but to provide tools for people to do things differently than they’ve ever done before.”

You have children with trauma who become adults with unresolved trauma who then can’t or aren’t able to make better decisions to create better lives for their children, she explained. “And then, the cycle continues as the children live in trauma and stress.”

More Information

If you would like to attend, a $25 registration fee will help cover conference costs, which includes breakfast and lunch. Registration closes April 1.

Affordable childcare options have been made available through Kid Cove and Watauga Parks and Recreation. Preregistration is required and must be completed by Thursday, May 7. For more information, please contact Christelle Marsh at christelle.marsh@dhhs.nc.gov

For more information on the event, sessions and/or to register, visit www.wataugacci.org.

Watauga High School is located at 300 Go Pioneers Drive in Boone.

About 500-plus community leaders — educators, health care professionals, parents and others — attended the 2019 WCCI Conference in Boone. At least that many, and more, are expected for the May 16, 2020 conference at Watauga High School.