By County Manager, Chris Coudriet
Every day, individuals make choices. Some can be as simple as choosing where to grab lunch or what outfit to wear. Choices can also be extremely difficult and have dire consequences. Sometimes, it can feel like there isn’t a choice at all. For many young people in our community, that could mean choosing violence to meet a pressing need or handle a conflict.
Since 2006, the Elements program, which is overseen by the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, has used civilians serving in non-certified law enforcement roles to help young people understand that alternatives to violence are available while helping them build the personal, social and professional skills needed to grow and move forward.
Kristy Williams has been with Elements since its inception, helping students in New Hanover County Schools and their families connect with available resources to meet needs and learn about alternatives to violence.
As part the Community Building Plan that was developed and implemented in 2022, Commissioners recognized the importance and effectiveness of this program and included it in their investments, expanding staffing for the Elements program, and allowing Kristy and her team to reach even more students and families in our community.
For this month’s public service profile, I asked Kristy about the work being done by Elements, the program’s recent growth and her passion for helping people. That conversation is below …
What brought you to this career and this type of work?
Growing up, my closest family members had careers serving others. For them, work never felt like a job – it was an honor and privilege. I had great role models and the idea of service before self was instilled in me at a very young age. I knew that I wanted to walk beside others in their journey and be a light in moments of darkness and hard times, I just wasn’t completely sure in what way.
I started working in the mental health field in college and began my career doing direct care. One day, we had a training on gang prevention and my eyes were opened to another side of my family. It was clear after the training, that I had grown up with a family member that had stumbled down that road. I looked back and could clearly see the warning signs and my heart hurt for the choices he had to make due to the hardships life presented him. I knew in that moment that this program is where I wanted to be.
Can you share what the Elements Program is?
Elements is an all-inclusive, behavior-focused program within the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office designed to implement education, prevention, intervention and diversion strategies to address factors that cause and sustain youth violence.
We are currently serving young people ages 8-17 years old throughout New Hanover County. We work directly with youth, their family, school personnel, law enforcement and community partners to begin services with identified families in our community.
All participants in our program receive individual, goal-focused appointments throughout the month, as well as experiential group activities. Some of the group activities we provide are teambuilding games, horseback riding, kayaking, high and low ropes courses, camping trips, gardening and geocaching. We are a free service, lasting 6 months to a year for each student, and we provide all transportation to and from their goal-focused appointments and group activities. We are a referral-based program and receive referrals from family members, community members, schools, court, mental health agencies, churches and social services.
What is a typical day for a student in the program?
We like to say there is no typical day for our team or our students. You can find Elements staff almost anywhere students are. Each youth enrolled in the program completes a risk assessment, which provides a base line of how many individual, goal-focused appointments that youth will have each month. Goal-focused appointments generally take place after school at our facility or in the community.
Students will also see our team throughout the week at school as we check in with counselors, teachers and school resource officers to follow up on grades, attendance, schoolwork, behavior and attend treatment team meetings.
If a student has a difficult day at school, we integrate into that situation when appropriate and act as a support for both the student and their guardian. We also attend court hearings, join in at times with intensive in-home appointments, and take part in meetings with social services as needed. We are a strength-based program that works with youth individually in a way that works specifically for them. And if by chance our students are not at school, for one reason or another, we will go to their homes and communities as well until they return to the school setting.
What are your goals now and into the future and how has the recent expansion impacted your work and service?
With our staff increasing, we have been able to create three teams to reach elementary, middle and high school students. Prior to this year we were able to intensely serve 40 middle school students at time, whereas now we can intensely serve 100 students.
We also fulfilled a goal that we have had for several years, which was to create a family component to the program. Through the expansion, we were able to bring in three family support caseworkers, one for each team, to work directly with the guardians of the students in our program. For years we worked with youth but knew so many needs could not be met if we were not able to work more intensely with guardians to support them with their personal and family goals. This component has enhanced our program services tremendously as we have been able to support guardians with finding jobs, food support, housing support, bill support, school meetings and referrals for therapeutic needs.
We have also started to integrate school resource officers into our activities. This integration has provided a safe place for our students to go during the school day and has built additional rapport between the school resource officer in such a way that when an incident happens at school, it is quickly deescalated due to the relationship they now have with those students.
We are also currently working on creating a life skills room for our high school participants and their guardians. This room will be utilized to teach older teens and parents the day-to-day life skills of cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, as well as applying for jobs to prepare them for future goals and independence. Looking further into the future, we have plans to create guardian support groups, expand on family activities within the program, organize school and career events for our students and immerse more into the community directly.
What is your favorite part of your work?
My favorite part is seeing the impact that the relationships we create have on families and students. The very best days are when our former students or guardians call us to check in and update us on their lives, or swing by the office just to say hello.
The program has been established for so long, that we have former students who have their own children now that they are enrolling in the program. It is an honor when an old student reaches out and says, “I want for my child what I was able to have from you.” To know that the support you provide has had a lasting effect is by far my favorite part of this job.
Kristy and the Elements team have done amazing work in our community for nearly two decades, and the program’s expansion this past year through the help of the Commissioners will only help make a bigger impact. I appreciate the Sheriff’s efforts to ensure our community’s youth are supported and look forward to seeing even more positive outcomes from this program.
If you know a student who might benefit from the services Elements provides, contact Kristy for a referral form by emailing KWilliams@nhcgov.com or call the Elements program at 798-4300. You can also find out more about Elements on Facebook.