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  • Josh Anderson

Compassionate Communities Care

The Watauga Compassionate Community Initiative promotes health and resiliency in the High Country by identifying ways to effectively prevent, recognize, and treat trauma. theHeart is excited to actively partner with other members of our community who are creating safe, stable, and nurturing relationships that help those whose lives are affected by trauma.

theHeart is part of a community initiative that wants to build resiliency in people so they can heal from whatever trauma they’ve been through and create better lives for themselves and their children.

In 2015, a group of agencies in Watauga County began to explore how to comprehensively serve youth in Watauga County. Taking direction from the Center for Disease Control‘s “Essentials for Childhood” one-pager, they decided the first step would be to raise community awareness and provide education about trauma and resiliency.

That's what led the group to create and host a “State of the Child” forum in May 2017. It was the first step in a growing initiative that continues to help develop awareness and support for those whose lives have been negatively impacted by divorce, physical and sexual abuse, substance abuse, neglect, and other traumatic events.

Since then, theHeart has sought to be actively involved with the Watauga Compassionate Community Initiative in a variety of ways recognizing it’s importance to the High Country and the mutually beneficial relationships that it provides.

"Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience." — Colossians 3:12

"Through participating in WCCI, we are able to build strong relational networks with counselors, medical professionals, social service agencies, school officials, and many others," Pastor of Relational Care, Graham Aitken said.

Currently, Graham is attending monthly meetings and helping to lead the Awareness Committee. Stephanie Thomas who attends theHeart provides leadership to the Prevention Committee. And several people from theHeart have participated in the annual forum that has taken place each year since 2017.

But why exactly was this initiative created?

Preventing Trauma. Building Resiliency.

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.

With a mission statement “to promote health and resiliency in our community and to effectively prevent, recognize and treat trauma by creating safe, stable nurturing environments and relationships," WCCI focuses on education about childhood trauma and building trauma-informed communities.

It's an ambitious goal, and yet in just four years the purpose of WCCI has become more and more refined.

At the center of this initiative is an annual forum that is held as an anchor event for WCCI. Each year the event draws hundreds of participants that include a multitude of educators, help agencies, local churches, and impassioned activists in the community.

Attendance is one indicator that the desire for a compassionate community is not just catching on, but is starting to establish deep roots. The most recent forum was held in this past May with 585 people in attendance. Community Life Pastor Josh Anderson was encouraged by what he experienced at the forum.

The 2019 WCCI annual forum gathered 585 people from all across the High Country and several professionals from around the state who want to learn more about what it means to be a trauma-informed community.

"The speakers were inspiring. The classes were informative. But perhaps even more energizing was to be surrounded by an impressive number of professionals from the High Country," Josh said. "Not only are they talented experts in their respective fields, but they are driven to build a strong and vibrant community."

In addition to hearing from two keynote speakers, participants were able to attend class sessions about trauma prevention, trauma treatment, promoting health, promoting resilience, creating safe, nurturing spaces, and creating safe, nurturing relationships.

People Helping People

In planning for this year's forum, organizers realized that, as a community, we need to help both children and adults build resiliency skills so they can be better equipped to create a more successful life for themselves.

“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.” — Denise Presnell

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

“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.”

Denise said with this year's forum, they wanted to create a space where participants could explore how we as a community can help people—not just children but adults as well—build those resiliency skills so they can offset whatever trauma they’ve been through.

Adverse Childhood Experiences

In recent months, the direction of WCCI has also been heavily influenced by the Adverse Childhood Experience study conducted in partnership between the Center for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente from 1995 to 1997.

This study evaluated the prevalence of traumatic experiences in a child’s life and correlated them to physical health.

The statistical significance of the results made a strong case for utilizing a trauma-informed approach for all community stakeholders, particularly those within the helping professions.

Though the study is now more than 20 years old, its only in recent years that it has garnered the kind of attention that it deserves.

Strength in Numbers

An initiative of this magnitude requires the involvement of many, which is why WCCI is organized into five committees that meet together on a monthly basis.


Graham Aitken chairs a group responsible for community education and training, and publicity. They help raise awareness through media, individuals, business, service groups, and more.


Co-chairs Kellie Reed Ashcraft and Adam Hege lead a group that uses data to inform solutions to adequately address issues. They also collect data to determine how people in the community think and feel about child maltreatment, relationships between agencies. And they synthesize data, take stock of existing data, fill gaps, and use data to support action steps.


Marisa Cornell, Denise Presnell and Candis Walker chair the committee responsible for the annual community-wide forum.


Emily Greer and her group help raise money for training, publicity, and future events through fundraisers, grants, and other sources


Stephanie Thomas chairs a committee that helps expand treatment options, implement evidence-based programs for children, caregivers and adults, promote positive community norms for parenting behaviors, and promote the community norm that we all share responsibility for the well-being of children.


Chair Jennifer Warren leads a team to identify and assess which policies may positively impact the lives of children and families. They also make suggestions and recommendations about policy change.

Stephanie first became involved with WCCI through her work at the Blue Ridge Children’s Advocacy Center in Boone. One of her supervisors asked her to step into the role of subcommittee chair for the Prevention committee.

"At first I was pretty nervous, to be honest," Stephanie admits. "I had never been a part of a community initiative before. But it started an adventure that has turned into a huge blessing."

For Stephanie it's encouraging to see all sorts of people—professionals, teachers, parents, church members, and other folks in the community—come together and be so driven to understand people in a compassionate way and to strive to make their actions helpful to those affected by trauma.

"Really, the issue of trauma is something that affects all of us." — Stephanie Thomas

She's also grateful that theHeart is involved with the Watauga Compassionate Community Initiative. It's something she thinks is fitting and important for followers of Christ to get behind.

"Addressing people in a compassionate way and supporting prevention efforts to keep the cycle of trauma from continuing is something that I feel is so important for our community," Stephanie said. "It’s humbling and exciting to be a part of it."

Ministry of Presence

At the end of the day, theHeart's involvement with the Watauga Compassionate Community Initiative isn't just about sitting around in committees and organizing forums. Although these things are important.

We believe our involvement with WCCI is a significant opportunity to engage people and make a difference in our neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools. It's an opportunity for us as a church family to show up and be a visible representation of Christ's Love. Simple.

"Partnering with like-minded individuals and organizations makes it possible for us to initiate real and meaningful change in our community," Josh explained. "When we are actively involved in grassroots efforts like WCCI, we are meeting people where they are at in life and demonstrating who we know God to be in a tangible way."

*Parts of this story were contributed by articles from the Watauga Democrat


Learn More About WCCI

If you have any questions about the Watauga Compassionate Community Initiative or want to know how you might be involved, email Denise Presnell:

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