BOONE — The lower level of the Watauga High School auditorium was filled to capacity on the morning of Saturday, May 4, as more than 500 people convened for the third annual event to raise community awareness about trauma and to build resilience to recover from its impacts.
Studies have shown that substance abuse, delinquency, domestic violence, obesity, smoking, poor health, criminal offenses, child welfare issues and mental health problems are more likely in those who faced a traumatic event or toxic stress as a child.
The Watauga Compassionate Community Initiative State of the Child/State of the Community conference began in 2017, originally conceived as a one-off forum to develop strategies for addressing childhood trauma and to become a trauma-informed community. But the event struck a chord in the community, and a consensus was reached that the work must continue.
The Watauga Compassionate Community Initiative was formed, with 300 people on the email list and about 60 active members who meet monthly year-round. The initiative’s work broadened to focus on trauma across the lifespan. And this year’s daylong conference featured 585 registered attendees, nearly 100 presenters and four breakout sessions with dozens of classes and presentations from which to choose.
Classes included the topics of critical incident response, EMDR therapy, how faith leaders can respond compassionately to sexual assault, independence as a path to resiliency, helping kids cope with anxiety, harm reduction, conscious discipline, mindfulness strategies, resiliency and trauma treatment interventions, preventing burnout among service providers and more. One breakout session allowed attendees to learn about activities to enhance mindfulness or reduce stress, including taiji, essential oils, walking a labyrinth, expressive arts, therapy dogs, yoga, massage, equine therapy, calming strategies, spiritual practices and music therapy.
“I was impressed with the variety of sessions and information that were available,” said Candis Walker, co-chair of the WCCI events committee. “It seemed like everybody could find lots of things that were interesting to them. The presenters that I heard were so knowledgeable (and were) answering questions off the cuff.”
The opening and closing speakers were two local women, Jessi Resendiz and Mary McKinney, who shared their personal stories of trauma and how they worked to overcome the impacts of those experiences.
Resendiz, a registered medical assistant and longtime resident of Watauga County, tearfully shared memories of physical and emotional abuse from her father and mother. By her early teens, she said, she was smoking, skipping school and caught up in the juvenile justice system. But as she became a mother to four children and has been happily married for 16 years, she said love and her faith gave her the strength to build a positive life for herself.
Resendiz urged conference attendees to be patient and to not turn their backs on children who may be rude, nor to take it personally.
“The past is the past,” she said. “You can be the change ... the past does not define you.”
McKinney, a licensed marriage and family therapist, noted that many may not fully believe her story of trauma because on the outside, she appears successful. She also endured and observed abuse as a child, and said she believed then that if she was strong or smart enough, she could fix it. The trauma of her early childhood later led to eating disorders and destructive behaviors, and McKinney also found herself in an abusive marriage. She found the strength to end that marriage and recover, but she continues to experience PTSD as a result of her trauma.
“Our stories shatter stigma,” McKinney said. “When we speak our truth ... we heal ourselves and we open to possibilities of healing another person.”
Denise Presnell, chair of the WCCI, said the decision to feature the stories of local residents was “to show that this is not just something that happens in big cities, that it’s here, it’s real and it’s common.” It was also to show that they were able to heal and build resiliency, in part because of the strength, connectivity and relationships that exist in the Watauga community, Presnell said.
After three years of the initiative, its leaders are hearing about the ways it is impacting Watauga community members, who feel it has opened their eyes and given them permission to both acknowledge their past and be hopeful about the future, Presnell said.
A few days ago, Presnell received an email from a woman who said the event helped her realize that trauma has impacted her life and her health, and she asked the WCCI to continue its work, saying it is saving lives.
“It’s definitely one of the most powerful things I’ve been involved with,” Presnell said.
“I think that people now have a better understanding when trauma impacts someone, when toxic stress impacts someone, it doesn’t mean that they’re done for,” Walker said. “It just means that they have a different way of coming at life, and any way we can be understanding or just acknowledge that is huge.”
Before, if someone said or did something negative, one might have said, “I can’t believe they did that,” Walker said. “Now we’re starting to say, I wonder what they’re going through or what they had to deal with. It gets a little grace.”
Presnell thanked Reid’s Catering, who provided lunch, Watauga County Schools, the event sponsors and the event volunteers for their contributions to this year’s event.
Presnell said the WCCI will soon work with a consultant to help the initiative establish its goals and its measures for achieving those goals. And although there will always be more work to do, the initiative is exploring ways to assess its progress toward becoming a “trauma-informed community.”
Next year’s conference theme will be “Community is the Solution” and the date will be Saturday, May 16, at Watauga High School.