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Preventing Trauma, Building Resiliency: Capacity Crowd Attends State of the Child/State of the Community Forum

A crowd of 300-plus people representing a wide range of community interests, begin their day at the forum with registration and breakfast in the gymnasium at Mount Vernon Baptist Church.


By Sherrie Norris

The 2018 State of the Child/State of the Community Forum held in Boone on Tuesday, April 17, was a huge success as evidenced by a crowd of 300-plus people filling Mount Vernon Baptist Church for the day-long event.

Presented by the Watauga Compassionate Community Initiative, the forum was designed to help community members address the need to prevent trauma and build resiliency. As a follow-up to the local 2107 State of the Child event, an introduction to becoming a trauma-informed community, Tuesday’s event attracted a wide representation of area and regional agencies and other interested individuals.

The gathering did everything it promised – and more — as special guest speakers left many in awe at the way they described not only surviving some of life’s most difficult situations, but also thriving and learning to live again through their healing process. Multiple breakout sessions led by area professionals — representing healthcare, law enforcement, education and others — focused on a variety of related topics that proved helpful to all in attendance.

Those session topics included everything from early childhood development, love and logic, advocacy, law enforcement interventions for building and maintaining trust in the community, to becoming a compassionate school, positive parenting, self-care, stress management, every day trauma support, community health, effects of domestic violence on children— and so much more.

The event was dedicated to the recently-deceased Dick Hearn, known as “a champion for those in need of an advocate and a friend to all.”

Opening remarks were made by Denise Presnell, Watauga County Schools social worker and chair of the WCCI; she was joined by Bud Russell who led in prayer and welcomed everyone on behalf of the church, Tom Hughes, Director of Watauga County Department of Social Services and member of High Country United Way which served as partnering sponsor with Mount Vernon; and John Welch, Watauga County Commissioner, all of who acknowledged support for the initiative.

At left, Candis Vaughn Walker, school counselor and prevention specialist for Watauga County Schools, presents a token of appreciation to Shelly Klutz, lead nurse for Watauga County Schools, for sharing her very personal and painful experience of losing her husband to suicide.

A story of personal pain and loss

As morning speaker, Shelly Klutz, lead school nurse for Watauga County Schools, who knows firsthand the effects of trauma and the difficult journey to resiliency, shared a very personal and painful story.

A mother and grandmother who witnessed the suicide of her husband — despite her attempts to stop it from happening— Klutz imparted a few details of how she dealt with her loss, and the stigma associated with suicide, as well as the ensuing diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Klutz learned to cope as a survivor with the help of a great support system and rigorous therapy, she said, and hoped that, in telling her story, others will realize they, too, can pick up the pieces and begin to heal, one step at a time.

Despite her earlier nurse’s training to help students deal with mental health issues, which included clinical rotations at Broughton Hospital in Morganton, it wasn’t until Oct 3, 2014 —when Klutz witnessed her husband of 23 years take his own life — that everything she had learned became her own reality. Trying unsuccessfully to stop the act was devastating, in itself, Klutz said, but trying to deal with the grief, and the stigma that accompanied it, was all-consuming.

In May 2015, she developed flashbacks and panic attacks that lasted longer than expected, and was diagnosed with post traumatic disorder; working with her own personal physician, Klutz was referred to a specialist who was able to help her, eventually, through specialized trauma therapy; she explained briefly during her presentation how she benefitted from the recommended eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy.

Her own experience has strengthened her in many ways, Klutz said, and helps tremendously in her day-to-day interaction with high school students who are struggling to make sense of some of life’s most difficult questions.

Klutz stressed that it takes a combination of interventions to help someone with PTSD —not just therapy, not just medication, not just your faith – “it is a mixture of things and people, a collaboration of different things.”

“My mom and my sisters were so worried about me — and that I would take my own life,” she said. “They hid my medication, and when it was time to take it, they would call and tell me where it was located.”

Immediately after the tragedy, she said, her son and neighbor came home before she got there to make sure there was no apparent evidence remaining. “They cleaned and scrubbed the floors and walls.”

Klutz knows that she has to be strong and carry on, not just for herself, she said, but also for her family and students.

“Until I went through it myself, and saw what happens, I don’t think I ever really ‘got it’ or understood it,” she explained.

Today, Klutz wears a special necklace depicting a cross and a mustard seed, reflecting her faith, and two bracelets. “One says that I am survivor and the other one says ‘breath.’ Some days, I had to remind myself to breathe. There have been days that I’d get on my hands and knees and beg God to start my heart.”

Her involvement with Grief Share at Mount Vernon Church was very helpful, Klutz said, which included advice on writing letters to her co-workers.

“I told them that it was very hard for me to talk about what happened, and asked that they be sensitive to my needs, telling them what they could do or not do, and what they could say or not say to me. Everybody was very respectful of my needs, which made it so much better for me.”

Klutz said she had to make the choice to live, not only for herself, but for her two sons, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. “And, I’ve discovered love again, with a wonderful man who has been there for me to help me through. Moving forward does not mean that I’ve forgotten him (Matt) or that I love him any less. I’m just happy that I’m finding hope again. I’m excited about the future.”

 Watauga County native Hollie Sink, licensed psychologist and clinical director/program administrator with Southmountain Children and Family Services, was one of about 60 presenters during Tuesday’s forum.

“Cracked, Not Broken:” Kevin Hines on surviving suicide attempt

Kevin Hines, author of bestseller “Cracked, Not Broken,” award-winning global speaker, documentary filmmaker and suicide prevention/mental health advocate, captivated the forum’s afternoon audience as he shared his incredulous story of surviving his attempted suicide after jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000.

He was 19 at the time, suffering with bipolar disorder, among other mental health issues, and in a deep dark place, he shared,

Hines has since become the literal bridge between loved ones and those individuals who succeeded at suicide; in sharing his story, Hines strives to be “the bridge of hope” — between life and death for people caught in the pain of living with serious mental illness and difficult life circumstances.

Hines left several key points with his audience on Tuesday, including the fact that one’s thoughts do not have to become their actions.

(See sidebar for more about Kevin Hines.)

Husband and wife team Laura and J.B. Byrch, who are having a positive impact in a local neighborhood, were among session leaders Tuesday and shared how supporting people affected by trauma is not just for social workers or service providers.

What is the WCCI?

In 2015, a group of agencies serving youth in Watauga County began to explore how to better serve the young people in the area. Taking direction from the Center for Disease Control’s “Essentials for Childhood” document, they decided to first raise community awareness and provide education about trauma and resiliency.

Thus, the first State of the Child Forum was held in May 2017 with a focus on childhood trauma and trauma-informed communities.

As a result, the Watauga Compassionate Community Initiative was created “in an effort to ensure the momentum would continue,” said Denise Presnell, who spearheaded the organization and continues as its chair today.

Its mission statement 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.”

The organization’s membership, currently numbering about 60 and representing a wide range of agencies, meets monthly to develop goals and help implement change.

During Tuesday’s forum, Presnell said the organization’s success has begun drawing attention from other towns and counties across the state for information and assistance in forming their own groups; its members have been working closely with the media, as well as with neighboring schools and agencies, in an effort to increase community awareness and help them become trauma-informed.

A special emphasis, she said, includes influencing the community toward a more positive view of homelessness, and developing additional partnerships between local agencies to further the mission of “viewing clients through a trauma lens.”

Reports were presented during the forum from chairs of six WCCI subcommittees, which include: Awareness, Data, Funding, Policy, Prevention and Events, the latter renamed to include more than the annual forum.

Dr. Scott Elliot, Watauga County Schools Superintendent, recognizes school social worker and community activist Denise Presnell for her efforts in spearheading the Watauga Compassionate Community Initiative

At the close of the 2018 forum, Presnell was recognized by Scott Elliott, Superintendent of Watauga County Schools, for her ongoing efforts with WCCI.

Also recognized for their work with WCCI and co-chairing this year’s event were Candace Vaughn Walker and Marisa Cornell, as well as a number of volunteers who served in various capacities.

The WCCI expressed appreciation to all involved in helping to make the event such a great success, including dozens of volunteers and sponsors.

For more information about WCCI, contact Denise Presnell at presnelld@wataugaschools.org or 828-264-8481.

Award-winning global speaker, mental health advocate, best-selling author and documentary filmmaker, Kevin Hines, who survived a suicide attempt after jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000, was in the High Country this week, sharing his poignant life story. He is shown here during the 2018 State of the Child, State of the Community Forum at Mount Vernon Baptist Church on Tuesday. Photo by Sherrie Norris

Kevin Hines Survived Suicide Attempt, implores others: “Be Here Tomorrow”

California’s Kevin Hines was 19 when he decided to end a life of pain and suffering by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. His attempt was unsuccessful, and he has spent the last few years traveling the world with a powerful message of hope.

An enthusiastic advocate for life, Hines was the keynote speaker for the annual State of the Child/State of the Community Forum at Mount Vernon Baptist Church on Tuesday, April 17, addressing a crowd of 300-plus, but also speaking at various other venues while in the High Country area.

Nearly 17 years after he was given a second chance at life, Hines came to Boone to share his story, admitting the suicide attempt was the greatest mistake he had ever made. Hines implored his Boone audience to not only “be here tomorrow,” but to also be aware of those around them who might need someone to listen, someone to encourage them and give them a reason to live.

His high-energy presentation, laced with a mixture of humor and stark realities, kept his audience on the edge of their seats throughout his hour-long appearance.

Hines shared how his troubled life began in infancy, his biological parents, both alcoholics and drug addicts with mental illness, offered no stable home environment, but rather constantly moved him and his older brother, Jordache, from one seedy hotel to another, “the kind you have to pay for by the hour,” he said. Thankfully, a hotel clerk had enough of the screaming, malnourished babies and called the police. Child Protective services took them away. There was still little stability, from one foster home to another, until he was adopted by Debra and Pat Hines at 9 months of age, but not before his brother died from bronchitis. Afterward, Hines developed a severe detachment disorder and was “violently ill” for 30 days. Only when his new mother reassured him of his safety and her love for him, was he able to sleep soundly for the first time ever.

Life continued to have its ups and downs; the couple he knew as parents divorced; he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, manic depression and paranoia, which only worsened through the years. He often drank himself into oblivion. Eventually, he heard voices that told him to end his own life.

Hines reminded his audience on Tuesday, and had everyone repeat over and over again, “My thoughts do not have to become my actions.”

The night before he planned to take his life, Hines wrote suicide notes to his family, his best friend and his girlfriend. When he awoke the next morning, he went into his father’s room and awakened him; when his dad asked what was wrong, Hines said he just wanted to tell him he loved him. He didn’t want to die.

He expected that to be the last time he would see his father, he said, but his father came to his room a little later, seemed to recognized that something wasn’t right, and suggested Kevin go to work with him that day. Rather, Hines said, he told his dad just to drop him off at City College, that he had a math exam that day and couldn’t miss it. (“He should’ve known then that something was bad wrong – I hated math!”)

Hines then boarded a bus, which by the time it arrived at the Golden Gate Bridge, carried about 100 passengers. “But not a single one noticed or cared that I needed help. If someone that day had just asked if I was OK, or if there was anything they could do for me, it would’ve made all the difference.”

In retrospect, Hines doesn’t believe it was a coincidence that a woman asked him to take her picture on the bridge, and that after several poses, she walked away, clearing the spot in front of him where he chose to jump. Nor was it a coincidence, he said, that as he jumped, another woman drove by, saw him take the plunge and quickly called the coast guard, reporting what she had seen.

It took him about four seconds to jump an equivalent to 25 stories, hitting the water at 75 miles per hour, shattering several bones in his back. When he realized he wasn’t dead, he felt something “big and slimy” swimming under him, thinking it was a shark, but was later told it was a sea lion that had helped him stay afloat until the coast guard rescued him. “That thing was my miracle.”

From hospital to hospital, and seven different psychiatric hospitals in the next 11 years, Hines had plenty of time to think about his life.

Today, Hines gives much credit for his successful recovery to his wife Margaret, who he says plays a big role in keeping him mentally stable. The couple met during Hines’ third involuntary stay in a psychiatric hospital.

“She was coming to visit one of her cousins,” Hines says. “When I met her, I said to myself, ‘I am going to marry her. ”

Capturing her attention – and love – wasn’t that easy, he admitted, but his persistence paid off.

Hines said he hopes that by telling his story, he will inspire others to open up and realize there is always hope.

In 2013, Hines released “Cracked Not Broken, Surviving and Thriving After A Suicide Attempt.” He is currently producing a documentary entitled Suicide: The Ripple Effect.

Hines’ will to live and stay mentally well has inspired people worldwide. His compelling story has touched lives and helped save lives, as well.

Hines is proof that one can find the ability to live mentally well. His mantra: “Life is a gift, that is why they call it the present. Cherish it always.”

He urges anyone who sees someone suffering and in pain – like he was that day on the Golden Gate Bridge – or whom they suspect may be having suicidal thoughts, to reach out. “Are we not our brother’s keeper? We are here to help people, not to hurt them,” he said.

This suicidal person “needs to hear what I needed to hear,” he added. “That we care about you, your life does matter and that all we want is for you to stay,” he says. “If someone had looked at me on that bridge or that bus and said that to me, I would have begged for help. I wanted to live.”

Hines touched on the importance of positive reinforcements, and also the detriment of bullying. “Words are killing people,” he said. “We can use them to damage and destroy or help and heal. We have to take responsibility for our world.”

Beyond the bridge

Hines one of only 36 known to survive the fall and he is the only Golden Gate Bridge jump survivor who is actively spreading the message of living mentally healthy around the globe.

Hines has been recognized on numerous occasions for his achievements and for helping to improve lives and attitudes regarding mental illness.

In 2016, Hines was awarded the Mental Health America’s highest honor, The Clifford W. Beers Award, for his efforts to improve the lives of and attitudes toward people with mental illnesses. Previously, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Council of Behavioral Health in partnership with Eli Lilly. Hines has also been awarded by SAMSHA as a Voice Awards Fellow and Award Winner, an Achievement Winner by the US Veterans Affairs and received over 30 U.S. military excellence medals as a civilian.

Hines sits on the boards of the International Bipolar Foundation, Bridge Rail Foundation and the Mental Health Association of San Francisco, and on the Survivors Committee of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Previously, he was a board member of the Northern California Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and was a two-term member of San Francisco’s Mental Health Board. He has spoken in congressional hearings alongside Patrick Kennedy in support of The Mental Health Parity Bill. He continues his policy work as an Ambassador to the National Council for Behavioral Health.

For more information, visit www.kevinhinesstory.com.

(5) Attendees of the State of the Child/State of the Community Forum were captivated by keynote speaker, Kevin Hines, as he shared a compelling story of how a young life of pain and mental suffering eventually resulted in a victorious comeback.