Since its establishment in 2016, the Unicoi County Prevention Coalition (UCPC) has become a valuable resource and partner to its community. Located in rural Tennessee with a population of roughly 18,000, this picturesque yet isolated setting poses unique challenges in terms of access to resources and opportunities. Upon identifying this community need, UCPC implemented effective strategies, including a peer mentoring program which pairs high school students with middle schoolers to provide guidance, support, and opportunities for personal growth.
High school mentors are chosen through a selective process. First, they must get at least three referrals from high school staff. Then, prospective mentors fill out an application and are granted final approval to be part of the program by their principal. The mentors undergo comprehensive training covering crucial topics such as childhood trauma (ACES), suicide prevention, self-harm, child abuse and neglect, self-care, and compassion fatigue. Following this, mentors are carefully paired with mentees and begin meeting weekly during school hours, utilizing classes that allow for flexibility.
The program extends beyond academic assistance, and instead focuses on overall well-being. Mentees are able to choose how they spend their time together, whether that be playing board games, tutoring, or simply talking. This one-on-one interaction fosters a safe space where mentees can share their experiences and challenges without judgment. The mentors also have the opportunity to listen, help build self-esteem, and identify additional ways the coalition can provide support.
In one instance, a mentee shared with their mentor that their family was struggling with food scarcity. With the help of many sectors in the community, this led to the UCPC’s establishment of “resource closets” that are now stocked with food, school supplies, hygiene products, and mental health resources for families in a similar position.
The success of UCPC’s program underscores the importance of partnerships and collaboration within the community. Christy Smith, Director of the UCPC, emphasized that the mentoring program and associated “resource closet” initiative, which are supported by partnerships with local businesses, schools, and other organizations, allows the coalition to create a safer, healthier environment for its youth to thrive and make positive choices.
Overall, the program’s impact has been praised and recognized by the community, with participating students experiencing improved attitudes, grades, and an increased sense of belonging. UCPC is working closely with schools to conduct surveys and use data to evaluate and improve the effectiveness of the program continually, and looking ahead, the coalition plans to expand its reach by using this program as a launching point to establish a youth coalition.