By Sherrie Norris
Nearly 600 individuals attended one of the area’s most informative, therapeutic events to date, as the third annual spring conference of the Watauga Compassionate Community Initiative was held at Watauga High School in Boone on Saturday, May 4.
This State of the Child, State of the Community Event has been described as “a community-impact event focused on transforming Watauga County” — and creates a shared understanding of how trauma and resiliency affect behavior, learning and lifetime physical and mental health. This year’s theme, ”What’s Strong in You?” helped set the stage for the comprehensive daylong multi-session workshop.
Dozens of local community agencies, organizations and professionals came together to address some of life’s hardest topics. Trauma and resiliency were the words for the day. The fact that a rough beginning does not have to mean a similar ending was a welcomed sentiment.
Following registration, the conference got underway with opening remarks by Denise Presnell, chair of the WCCI, who said the planning committee began working on the agenda following last year’s event, with much consideration given to participant survey results.
Presnell noted that the new location provided much-needed space for growth, as attendance has already doubled in size; she thanked Watauga County Schools for making it possible, as well as everyone who had a part in its success.
Referring to the event theme, Presnell told her audience, “What’s strong in us is a community like ours — people with passion, dedication and compassion for others — that inspires us to keep doing this every year.”
Presnell introduced Jessi Resendiz, the morning’s guest speaker, who presented a heartfelt, gut wrenching story of her painful beginning — and how a school social worker, (Presnell, herself!) helped turn her life around just at the right time.
An Avery County native and long-time resident of Watauga County, Resendiz is now a registered medical assistant who has been in healthcare for the past decade. Mother to four incredible children and blessed with a wonderful husband of 16 years, she believes love gave her the strength to create a positive life for herself.
Growing up, she endured physical and mental abuse at the hands of her parents, but has since deliberately built a life of joy and resiliency with her immediate family. She found strength and hope through church and life lessons — and believes she was put on this earth for a reason. She is thankful, she said, for the life she now has, and firmly believes the life you have growing up does not determine who you become. “Life is a choice and you either can either make the best of it or dwell on the past.”
Resendiz is committed to ensuring that her kids know their worth and know how much they are loved. “If I am able to help just that one abused child know that they can always change and achieve
anything they choose, then I have accomplished one of
my dreams. The past is the past and that is not what defines you as a person,” she said.
Mary McKinney closed out the event with a poignant and often painful story of how she went from victim to victor.
McKinney has been described as “passionate” in her efforts to remove stigmas related to mental health and promoting full lives along the spectrum of mental wellness and illness.
As a licensed marriage and family therapist, McKinney has provided psychotherapy and clinical supervision since 2001 through McKinney Marriage and Family Therapy, her private practice in Boone.
McKinney’s understanding of how trauma affects all health has developed during more than 26 years working in the mental health field, through her own experience living with domestic violence, and as the mother of daughters who experienced developmental and other trauma.
A Mitchell County native, McKinney has gained experience through the years through her work in a psychiatric hospital, residential treatment center, four public mental health clinics, Appalachian State University’s student counseling center, and Southmountain Children and Family Services. She has provided contracted clinical services for OASIS and has volunteered for domestic violence shelters. McKinney and her younger daughter have PTSD.
Among her favorite ways to support her own mental health include hiking and spending time with her family, friends, pets — and trees.
(You can read more about Resendiz and McKinney in “Overcoming Trauma,” an upcoming feature on this website later this week.)
Dr. Scott Elliott, Superintendent of Watauga County Schools, was in attendance for the conference, as was a large contingency of local educators and school staff; Jay Fenwick, representing the Watauga County Board of Education, and Charlie Wallin, Watauga County Commissioner, also participated in the forum.
Elliott expressed his appreciation for those named above, specifically mentioning Watauga County elected officials and thanking them for their “Invested resources” in helping to fund additional staff, including school nurses and counselors.
Elliott also thanked the event sponsors for their support, Resendiz and McKinney for sharing their stories, and Denise Presnell and Candis Walker, for their leadership roles on the planning committee.
Sessions with the experts
Among the nearly 100 presenters at the conference were those representing local healthcare on all levels, including physical, mental and behavioral health; local and state law enforcement agencies, education professionals from various levels of state and local institutions, numerous children, youth and family services agencies, churches and faith outreaches — and more.
Morning and afternoon sessions featured a variety of classes that covered the gamut of topics related to trauma and resiliency — and included, but were certainly not limited to the following: A Compassionate Response to Sexual Assault, EMDR Therapy: Unlocking the Brain and Body to Heal Trauma, Everyday Trauma Support, The Heart of Learning and Teaching, How Identifying and Building Other’s Strengths can Change Lives, and the Importance of Healthy Outdoor Play and Exercise.
Other classes, too, were available, including Internet Safety – How to Keep your Children Safe, Helping Kids Cope with Anxiety, and Understanding Ourselves Through a Trauma-informed Approach.
Attendees had the chance to learn more from local law enforcement about drug treatment court; Understanding the dynamics of drug-endangered children was another hot topic, as presenters shared about the growing number of meth-affected children in Watauga County — and described how meth affects the brain. The struggle parents face in recovery and long-term sobriety was covered, in addition to the testimony of a special guest who shared a very personal road-to-recovery story.
The session, What I Wish My Parents Had Told Me, helped others learn how to develop prevention strategies surrounding teen substance abuse, through education, communication, collaboration and included open discussion, questions and answers.
Other sessions, too, included how the local faith community can help victims of abuse and trauma discover resiliency through engaging scripture, nurturing supportive relationships and more.
Becoming a foster or adoptive parent was among the sessions, too, as was improving your own well-being through nutrition and related topics, including self-care — exercise, yoga, mindfulness-based techniques, recognizing, assessing and preventing burnout, and the benefits of essential oils and animal therapy, just to name a few.
It Didn’t Just Happen
Did this conference just happen, we asked Denise Presnell?
No, it took a lot of hard work and perseverance over the last three years to bring the event to where it is today, she said. It required endless hours of planning, meeting and coordinating with local agencies and individuals.
The first local conference was held in Boone to introduce our community to the concepts of trauma and resiliency, Presnell said.
From there, WCCI was born. The 2018 WCCI State of the Child was deemed a huge success, held at Mount Vernon Baptist Church and attended by over 300 people. The theme was Preventing Trauma, Building Resilience. It featured Shelly Klutz, the lead nurse for Watauga County Schools as morning speaker; the afternoon speaker was Kevin Hines, recognized globally as a mental health advocate, who shared about his suicide attempt by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge — and how his survival turned his life around.
“We used feedback from last year’s participant surveys to find a larger venue, to extend class times and create tracks for teens, educators, the faith community and our Spanish- speaking community members,” Presnell said. “Our biggest accomplishment was finding a site with a capacity for 600 guests, so that all interested parties count attend.
Additional outreach in the community to get more people on board included a strong focus on medical professionals, Presnell added, and has included several “Lunch and Learn” events, attended by providers from the Appalachian Regional Health System, including Behavioral Health, and WMC Emergency Department Intervention Team.
WCCI also provided a trauma training session for the staff of Daymark Recovery Services.
Additionally, WCCI also hosted five movie screenings, featuring the documentary “Resilience,” as well as a poverty simulation for the community, through which attendees experienced some for the critical components of what it means to live on an income that falls before the national poverty rate.
(The aforementioned information was delivered as part of the WCCI’s more inclusive subcommittee reports: Awareness, Data, Events, Policy and Prevention.)
The event planning committee members are:
Yolanda Adams (Watauga County Schools), Emily Greer (WAMY Community Action) Elizabeth Kerley (AppHealthCare), Denise Presnell
(Watauga County Schools), Katie Warner (Appalachian State University)
Marisa Cornell (Mediation and Restorative Justice Center), Claire Jensen
(Watauga County Schools), Christelle Marsh (Children’s Developmental Services Agency of the Blue Ridge), Annie Routh (Appalachian State University), Lauren Wilson (Crossnore School and Children’s Home),
Isauro Estrada, (Watauga County Schools), Shelly Klutz (Watauga County Schools), Christy Miller (Miller Marriage and Family Therapy),
Candis Walker (Watauga County Schools) and Wysteria White (Boone Chamber of Commerce).
Also, hats off to the dozens of volunteers and all the others who participated, as well as those attendees, all who gave up their Saturday to make a difference.
The 2019 State of the Child Event will go down in history as one of the most successful events of its kind – anywhere!!
In fact, the sponsoring organization, Watauga Compassionate Community Initiative, has been approached numerous times from towns and cities all over the southeast and beyond for advice on how to have similar events.
What a blessed community we really are to have hundreds of people interested in not only identifying trauma and its related consequences, but working together for a better outcome for all.
For more information, visit wataugacci.weebly.com.