Students in the Eastern Panhandle have recently gained exposure to uniformed soldiers in the hallways of their schools. The men and women of the West Virginia Air National Guard (WVANG) 167th Airlift Wing, the 130th Airlift Wing, and the Army National Guard have been diligently working to help combat the state’s opioid addiction crisis by offering various mentoring opportunities to elementary and middle school students.

West Virginia social workers in Eastern Panhandle schools have helped connect WVANG service members with students. Through a wide range of activities, members of this growing outreach program hope to help the youth of West Virginia combat future drug addictions. The program began in March 2018 in Morgan County, and has now expanded to both Berkeley and Jefferson Counties.

WVANG Chief Master Sergeant Billy Gillenwater explained that this partnership began as a revival of the West Virginia National Guard Drug Demand Reduction Program (DDRP) for students of the state at the request of Governor Jim Justice and the West Virginia National Guard Adjutant General, Major General James A. Hoyer. Gillenwater added that the original DDRP began as a reading program for students, but the new initiative has grown to be a multi-faceted approach to promote drug prevention.

This approach coincides with the vision statement of the DDRP—which is to promote drug prevention, education, outreach, and awareness efforts—in a way that is positive for the children they work with. Gillenwater explained that the end goal is to have soldiers interact with students “… in every county, in every school in West Virginia.”

“We get viewed differently by being in that uniform,” he maintained. “If we can get kids to make good life choices, it can help to keep them out of trouble.”

Students ask members of the WV Air National Guard questions during a mentoring session in a Berkeley County School. ©WVANG

Gaining Momentum

As Gillenwater began the DDRP, he connected with Tiffany Hendershot, project director of The Martinsburg Initiative (TMI). Hendershot has served as a member of the WVANG for 17 years, as a mechanic. Recently, she said that she made a move from the WVANG to serve for the WV Army National Guard as a social worker. She has also worked as a social worker for Morgan County Schools in previous years, and currently lends her expertise to students in Berkeley County.

The connection to Hendershot has helped Gillenwater expand the DDRP school program from its humble beginnings in Morgan County to now include locations in the Berkeley County Schools system. Hendershot has helped leaders of the DDRP coordinate their efforts so that students with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can receive the support that they need.

According to the mission statement at TMI, scientific research supports the notion that ACEs aid in the growing opioid crisis. They adhere to this mission statement in order to build a child’s resilience to these negative influences. The presence of soldiers in the schools adds to the effort against ACEs through positive interactions with students in groups, as well as individually.

To help soldiers learn to work with students, Hendershot stated that WVANG members were taught how to teach the children through the Morgan County Partnership’s initiative: Positive Action Program.

The DDRP initiative has gained impressive momentum in its outreach over the past nine months. It began with just three elementary schools in March, and by December, it has allowed Gillenwater and fellow soldiers to get to know students in 15 elementary and middle schools in three counties. School social workers select where soldiers would be going based on needs of students. He explained that if a student has experienced a traumatic event, social workers will pair a soldier or a group of soldiers with that student.

“We go where the need is,” he affirmed. “We teach manners; our bottom goal is to interact and read to kids in school. We try to share how we have been successful in life. It’s pretty cool to give back and share with these young kids, because some of them have a rough life.”

WV Air National Guard soldiers showcase a large sardine—the focus of a recent Sardine Club parade float project with Warm Springs Intermediate School. ©WVANG

Building Foundations

With the assistance of the schools’ social workers, soldiers are directed to interact with students who are coping with ACEs while attending school. Hendershot explained that when social workers select students to participate in group activities, they are not just students who have a high risk of ACEs.

“It’s not just for at-risk kids, it’s good for everybody,” Hendershot said of the involvement of soldiers in the schools.

Although the interactions with the servicemen and servicewomen are presented in a positive light, their presence represents a real response for the Air National Guard to assist the children of West Virginia in a time of crisis. Gillenwater stated that soldiers “… should be seen in the community, not just when there is an emergency.”

He added, “We’re trying to build a good foundation—these guys have done a great job. It’s West Virginians helping other West Virginians.”

Some days, students will arrive at school and see a uniformed soldier opening the door to their car to welcome them to school. Other days, flag-folding ceremonies are held with students so that they can learn more about the importance of the U.S. flag as well as the meaning behind it. “It’s kind of a lost art,” Gillenwater pointed out. “We teach kids how to handle and treat Old Glory with respect.”

On occasion, soldiers will meet with students during their lunch time so they can have a casual chat while sharing a meal. As far as conversation goes, Gillenwater said, “You never know what will spark conversation [with students],” adding, “We don’t really go into politics and religion—we try to skirt that.”

A program that is held at Warm Springs Intermediate School in Morgan County is especially popular with students. The Sardine Club began as a smaller group of 14 young ladies, and has now grown to approximately 200 students.

For Hendershot, the Sardine Club is close to the heart. During her time working at Warm Springs Intermediate, she was the advisor of the Wednesday social program. For her, the involvement of the WVANG at Sardine Club “brings everything full circle,” as she also volunteers as part of the DDRP.

“I used to run the Sardine Club,” she said. “Sardines are some of the healthiest fish you can eat, and you can get a can for around a dollar. It teaches kids that they can eat cheap if they know what to buy.”

Gillenwater stated that the students have really been enjoying the sardine experience. He explained that the volunteers serve sardines for three lunch periods. Students enjoy crackers with their sardines as well as good conversation with the WVANG members.

Ultimately, Gillenwater remains extremely optimistic that, as the endeavor grows throughout the Panhandle, students will continue to positively respond to their interactions with soldiers, and the relationships will only continue to grow.

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