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“What’s Strong in You?” Theme Set for 2019 State of the Child, State of the Community Event

Three-hundred plus community leaders and educators attended the 2018 State of the Child, State of the Community Event in May. Twice that many are expected for the May 4, 2019 conference at Watauga High School

By Sherrie Norris

May 2019 could easily be an eye-opening, life-changing month for hundreds of individuals in the High Country, if Denise Presnell has her way. And, anyone who knows Denise Presnell knows it can happen.

The innovative school counselor who heads up the Watauga Compassionate Community Initiative is growing more excited by the day as she and her team plan the upcoming State of the Child, State of the Community Event. Slated for Saturday, May 4, from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. at Watauga High School, the conference is expanding its size, strength and focus with expected attendance between 500-600 people and double the breakout sessions from last year.

Holding the event on a Saturday in a larger, more conducive classroom setting, Presnell said, will allow for more participants, as well as presenters, and will make it more convenient for childcare workers and educators to attend, as well as parents, many of whom will not have to hire substitutes or miss a day’s work to come.

Even before the 2018 event concluded earlier this year, Presnell said, she was already thinking about what she wanted to do next year.

“We’ve been meeting once a month, planning and trying to explore ideas and increase awareness and interest in our next conference,” she said. “And, while it might seem like six months is a long way off, it will be here before we know it — and we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

For the last three years, WCCI has been working tirelessly, it seems, to lead Watauga County toward a healthier, more compassionate community as it strives to prevent trauma and build resiliency, initially focusing on the younger generation.

It’s a concept that is quickly growing, and Watauga County is serving as a template, of sorts, for others across the state. Community leaders and educators are inquiring on a regular basis about the initiative and seeking 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 is proving effective, which was further confirmed in May of this year when the WCCI hosted yet another successful event at Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Boone. Attended by some 330 people, mainly an audience of educators and community servants, its goal was the prevention of trauma and building resiliency.

Still, Presnell said, there is much more work to be done as the 2019 WCCI conference is quickly taking shape.

Scott Elliott, Superintendent of Watauga County Schools, and Denise Presnell, Chairperson of the Watauga Compassionate Community Initiative, address the crowd at the May 2018 conference at Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Boone.


“What’s Strong in You?”
The upcoming event, Presnell said, will take the dual topic a few steps further as the target audience will include the aforementioned service providers and educators, but also community members, individuals and parents, who can all benefit from learning more about an often misunderstood subject that’s too easily swept under the rug. Until it can no longer be obscured.

“What’s Strong in You,” is the theme for the next conference and will feature local keynote speakers who have forged through trauma and will share their journey to resiliency.

“We decided to tap in to our local resources this year and will have some dynamic speakers with whom the local community can identify,” Presnell said.

The response was overwhelming in May, Presnell said, to a local woman’s presentation, during which she shared her very poignant and personal story of pain, loss and recovery — and everything in between.

It helped the planning team realize that, as a community, we need to help children and adults build resiliency skills and create a more successful life for themselves, Presnell said.

“We’re finally learning that it’s OK (to give ourselves permission) to talk about not only where we came from, but that we’ve made it — and what we’ve done along the way to overcome our pain,” she explained.

At the same time, however, Presnell pointed out that many individuals who experienced trauma early in life have never been able to overcome it and are prone to suffer through adulthood with various issues, including addiction, abuse (as a perpetrator), mental illness, unemployment, homelessness and more.

“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.”

It is Presnell’s hope, and one shared by the WCCI team, to involve more parents this year. “We want to encourage everyone to start planning ahead for this event,” she said.

It will take “an army of people,” Presnell said, “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.”

This year’s conference will include about 20 breakout sessions, versus eight last year, and hopefully in one-hour slots, rather than 45 minutes.

Class sessions will include the following:

  • Trauma prevention
  • Trauma treatment
  • Promoting health
  • Promoting resilience
  • Creating safe, nurturing spaces
  • Creating safe, nurturing relationships

Target audiences will include community members, service providers and educators.

A $25 registration fee will help cover conference costs, which includes breakfast and lunch. Childcare will not be available.

Registration is required and will begin on February 1, 2019.

Watauga County Foster and Adoption Program is the primary sponsor for the 2019 conference, with other healthcare and community agencies providing additional sponsorship to be announced later.

For more information, email presnelld@wataugaschools.org.