Community Connections

Staff Photo by Jessica Nuzzo

K9 Sgt. B.W. Copenhaver reads to James Hood, 11, and John Davidson, 5, during the Bluefield Explorers Program hosted by Community Connections at the Bluefield Police Department substation on Bland Street in September 2018.

PRINCETON – Community Connections Inc. (CCI) has been changing the culture of Mercer County and beyond since its founding in 1990 as an outgrowth of the Governor’s Cabinet on Children and Families. CCI is a private, non-profit, 501c3 corporation dedicated to improving the lives of children and families on a local, regional and statewide level.

The Executive Director, Greg Puckett got involved with CCI in 2001 and continues to push the agency to reach across invisible borders and boundaries and effectively leverage its resources to fill the gaps in services where needed.

As of now, CCI’s website lists Family Resource Network, Prevention Without Borders, Indentogo Services, SADD, students against destructive decisions, Drug-free all stars basketball, Princeton Renaissance Project, Camp Mariposa and Project Renew as their active programs.

Puckett, who was originally appointed the Director of Drug-Free Communities Programs said that a big part of CCI’s goal is to start these programs then give them away and let them flourish.

CCI has served as the Governor-designated Family Resource Network (FRN) for Mercer County since 1990. To help FRN, CCI collaborates with various community leaders to identify service gaps and works with community leaders to develop and implement new strategies and programs.

“They had done multiple projects to that point, they had worked extensively and were doing a lot of things for community and families, to create and birth programs, and let them stand on their own,” Puckett said. “The Mercer County teen court program is a diversion program that allows youth to mentor other youth. We were able to start that statewide.”

Another program, Prevention Without Borders is the lead substance abuse prevention program throughout southeaster W.Va. For this program, CCI utilizes a network of coordinators to implement substance abuse prevention programs, practices and services. Under the umbrella of this program, Prevention Without Borders and CCI supports SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) Chapters. It is a youth-led organization that provides students with a voice to speak out about the problems they see in their schools and communities.

“Over the past couple of years we restarted the Mercer County Substance Abuse Coalition bring the community together in a variety of sectors and they all come together in various forms to work on social issues, we understand tobacco and alcohol at biggest risk,” Puckett said. “Opioid abuse is a crisis; tobacco and alcohol are the most consistent.”

Community Connections does regional and statewide programs. They are in charge of prevention in 11 counties and work with community coalitions all over the state of W.Va.

“Even though we are what looks like a small agency, we do broader work,” Puckett said. “We work with CADCA community anti-drug coalition of America. I have been with them since 2001 and now I am on the board. I work with them to develop materials around nicotine delivery devices. It is really cool because it shows you that a small organization can have a national impact.”

Puckett said that being a part of a prevention league has allowed Community Connections to look at public policy and advocate for health strategies. As part of this work, they have distributed over 1,000 doses of Narcan, an opioid antagonist used for the complete or partial reversal of opioid overdose. Puckett said that one of his greatest successes was working with the city of Bluefield to distribute these Narcan kits.

“One of our officers was exposed to an agent and one of the kits that we had provided saved that officer,” Puckett said. “That is when you know the work that you do has an immediate impact.”

Community Connections is also working with The Explorers Program that facilitates relationships between law enforcement and youth.

“We are looking at additional ways to involve law enforcement with our young people so there are relationships so they do not see them as a threat but an ally,” Puckett said. “We have tried to merge over and connect these relationships, especially youth at risk.”

This is a pilot program before it goes statewide and is in the evidence-based process right now. They are using “Gracie’s Guides,” books by Kathrn Kandas, program director. Puckett said that this particular program has worked in Bluefield, Athens, Princeton and Bramwell.

“We are trying to establish these relationships and let them flourish,” Puckett said. “The books are a self-guided series, where they talk about bullying substance use, all kinds of detrimental behaviors for young people in kindergarten through sixth grade.”

Another project close to Puckett’s heart is Camp Mariposa, W.Va., a free, weekend camp program for children who are affected by the substance use disorder of a loved one.

“We have one of 12 camps in the United States,” Puckett said. “It is a therapy camp for young people dealing with substance use problems, maybe with their family or friends; it is impacting them in some negative way, it helps them work through potential negative behaviors in their life and they go through a year-long process, they have relationships, and resiliency at the end of that year, we hope they will come back and be mentors for the next year.”

Camp Mariposa project is part of Eluna’s national Camp Mariposa network and the W.Va. site has a five-year commitment from Eluna. This is year three and Puckett said that the program has been very successful.

“One of the things I have seen most is these kids getting to go to Camp Mariposa every other month, during the off months, these kids still participate in community-related activity and get to experience resources in the local area and that is beneficial for them as well,” Puckett said.

In the next year, Puckett hopes to focus on data and do addition surveys with the youth of the area. Community Connections is working on a Community Assesment to try to find out what the community thinks the biggest issues are. They are also going to focus on healthy policies and activities.

“When negative statistics go down, the economic impact goes up,” Puckett said. “We have to work on that, the goal is to make our communities stronger.”

— Contact Emily Rice at erice@bdtonline.com

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