Sixty percent of the population has experienced at least one traumatic event at an early age. Fifteen percent have survived four or more traumatic experiences before the age of 18. The lifelong ramifications of this kind of trauma are far-reaching and oftentimes unidentified, leaving many to view their lives through a lens filled with chaos and trauma.

The Watauga Compassionate Community Initiative’s (WCCI) mission seeks to provide a knowledge to communities that is nothing short of empowering. WCCI is the voice of hope in a world that is too often bleak and meaningless. Those in the organization are determined to take the brokenness of human experience and create something resilient by helping others rise from their trauma.

The group is guided by a leadership of 12 community members — 10 of which are women. The leadership consists of Hayley Bayne, Marisa Cornell, Yolanda Adams, Candis Walker, Adam Hege, Jennifer Warren, Kellie Reed-Ashcraft, Denise Presnell, Graham Aitken, Suzi Woodard, Stephanie Thomas and Crystal Kelly. The team includes representatives from groups such as the Children’s Council of Watauga County, Mediation and Restorative Justice Center, Western Youth Network, Blue Ridge Children’s Advocacy Center of Southmountain Children and Family Services, Appalachian State University, Watauga County Schools, Blue Mountain Center for Integrative Health and the local faith community.

Roughly 95 percent of the group’s membership is made up of women, according to WCCI Chair Denise Presnell.

In 2013, Denise’s life was changed. Through the pursuit of a Master’s of Social Work degree, she discovered a 1998 study that developed the concept of ACEs —or Adverse Childhood Experiences. This study, conducted with 17,000 people, determined that common traumatic childhood experiences had powerful long-term effects of which obesity and depression were only the beginning.

Closely working with Jennifer — executive director for the local nonprofit the Western Youth Network — as part of her MSW internship, Denise’s passion for ACEs and trauma awareness became her mission. Her assertion, “If you’re interacting with humans, you need to know this stuff” grew into a 2017 conference that drew a crowd of more than 400. From there, the initial steering committee became WCCI, and is now known throughout the Watauga community as the hub of resources for help and guidance.

As the lead and founder of WCCI, Denise’s commitment to share the life-altering message ACEs contains began on a personal level.

“I learned that I get to choose the kind of person I am,” Denise says. “I can’t change the past, but I can change how I react. The trauma has already happened, but I don’t have to perpetuate it.” She wants to extend this message to as many others as possible — “Our past does not define us; it is not our destiny.”

With passion fueling determination, WCCI and its goals have quickly spread throughout the Watauga community. A changed focus from its initial “State of the Child” forum to “State of the Community” is a result of the growing awareness of how much each person is affected by trauma at any point throughout their lives.

It is this awareness that drives the mission of this organization. Once established as an on-going initiative, the burgeoning volunteer group was divided into four areas that meet monthly: awareness, events, policy and prevention. These groups work on building an annual conference that promotes awareness, a community presentation that defines trauma, a collection of local ACEs and trauma prevention and intervention data on behalf of WCCI and several programs that blend awareness of ACEs with other community organizations.

In collaborative efforts with local systems, WCCI has trained faculty at all schools in the Watauga County Schools system on trauma and resiliency. Each school has been redesigned as a “compassionate school” that includes installing calm corners in classrooms, building resiliency skills in children and instituting a School Trauma and Resiliency Team, Denise says.

WCCI also works closely with agencies in different sectors such as law enforcement, local public mental health providers, nonprofits, social services, public health and nursing.

Through the myriad ways in which this organization has infused itself into the community, the message remains very straightforward and constant: It is imperative that trauma is prevented and treated in its many forms. Healing and resiliency are possible at any age and for any community.

To date, it is primarily women who embrace the mission of WCCI. Denise describes this female-driven work environment as “… an incredible journey of healing for me in having safe spaces, and learning how to change my reactions. I have women friends whom I can trust that I can ask about how to handle my life. These women have finished the process of raising me. They have helped me to understand compassion and consistency. This is my life’s work. It has changed me professionally and personally as well.”

Many of the WCCI staff share these sentiments. Kellie, a member of the leadership team as the co-lead for the Data Committee as well as the co-lead for the Policy Committee, describes that her involvement with WCCI has been the most empowering and exciting experience that she has ever been involved in.

“We ‘live’ connection, compassion and commitment to change. The shared leadership, vision and vulnerability that I experience with these groups and this effort has excited me by what we may be able to accomplish together in the community,” Kellie said.

Similarly, Yolanda — who serves as the family resource coordinator for Watauga County Schools — describes her involvement with WCCI and the Latino community as one of the best experiences of her life. She works with 185 families in the Watauga area, often serving as a liaison between Latino families and community resources. She has found that sharing her story of trauma encourages others to share their own.

“I took my own personal experience and shared it with them,” Yolanda says. “My vulnerability helps them to be vulnerable themselves.”

In regard to WCCI’s relevance, Yolanda explains, “The impact and shift we have seen in our community — it is palpable now. It is out there. People are practicing it. People are sharing stories, and knowing that by doing that they can change lives.”

Three years into WCCI’s inception, March 2020 brought a worldwide pandemic. Trauma became widespread, affecting all in various ways.

Stephanie, Prevention Committee co-leader, shares that she feels passionate about the de-stigmatization of trauma and mental health.

“Both trauma and mental health issues are not unique to certain individuals — they are something anyone can experience. One of the things the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us is that many people who may not have experienced trauma in the past are experiencing it now,” Stephanie says.

Stephanie also shares that even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, those in WCCI were discussing how trauma can impact those involved. A message discussed in 2019 by the Prevention Subcommittee proves more valid given the world’s current status: “When hard things happen, it can affect how we think, feel and behave. We can help each other, and together we can heal,” Stephanie says.

Jennifer, co-chair of the Policy Committee and who played a part of the identification of ACEs research, describes that the pandemic has “never stopped our work; we just went about it in different ways.”

These ways include “Wednesday conversations,” which offer a variety of sessions about trauma, prevention and resilience and have successfully met with 40-50 people virtually each week. Denise describes, “in some ways the pandemic has expanded our outreach. It has affected all of us. There is a growing awareness of the way toxic stress impacts the quality of our lives. Our organization provides the knowledge of how to manage and negate that toxicity.”

Before the daily lexicon included the words pandemic, social distancing, shelter-in-place, quarantine or facial covering required; before social events were limited and restricted; and before society became well-versed in a virtual way of life — WCCI was at work. Well before the world became smothered by a virus, the Watauga community was on its way to learning the empowering language of awareness and resilience. WCCI was there before the fire, prepared to keep this community rising through adversity.

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Hollie Eudy is an English teacher who loves stories, words and the mountains of Appalachia.

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