Moms and dads, especially those raising teenagers, may find it difficult to address the topic of drugs and alcohol with their kids, but Stephanie Wills with Bacon Street Youth and Family Services is here to help.
As the new prevention coordinator for Bacon Street, Wills works with families in schools and neighborhoods to help strengthen character and promote love and respect in order to “offset some of the negative influences that would lead to drug abuse,” she explained.
Wills and a team of interns with Bacon Street’s prevention services head out into the community multiple times a week, interacting with at-risk youth after school. Their goal is to provide programming that includes movement and mindfulness activities and games designed to positively develop their character.
“The children have been really receptive to it,” she said. “They seem to be enjoying it, and have been asking when we are going to come. We are giving them new skills and watching them grow and develop. I also love just listening to them and finding out what is going on in their lives.”
Bacon Street has been reaching out to two neighborhoods in York County and one in James City County, and hopes to add three neighborhoods in Newport News next year.
In addition, Bacon Street has partnered with Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools’ School Health Initiative Program (SHIP) to spread its anti-drug message to students involved in SHIP’s after-school clubs at James River and Stonehouse elementary schools and Berkeley Middle School.
Bacon Street was recently awarded a grant from the Virginia Foundation of Healthy Youth, which will be used to expand the organization’s neighborhood outreach, its partnership with SHIP and other initiatives.
“I love working with children and their families,” she said. “I’m also passionate in my belief that it all starts in the home.”
Her interest in helping families in need started when she was raising her own children in Pennsylvania. She and her two children spent a lot of time with other families in their neighborhood, especially while her military husband, Jeffrey, was deployed.
“All the kids came to our house to play, or we’d do crafts or I’d feed them dinner while their parents worked,” Wills said.
When her children got older, Wills made the decision to return to school. She earned a degree in human development and family studies from Pennsylvania State University. Wills later interned with Bacon Street before accepting a full-time position with the organization in April 2017 after the military brought her family to Yorktown.
“I love that my job is not a desk job,” she said. “I also love this area. It is a beautiful place, and a great place to raise families.”
Rearing children has its rewards, but it can also pose challenges, especially when parents have no support or aren’t equipped to handle difficult situations. Organizations like Bacon Street are available to offer assistance.
Wills oversees education classes and support groups for parents as well as youth empowerment classes for high-risk youth and those seeking treatment at Bacon Street. The youth empowerment classes are tailored to the children’s needs and focus on anger management and improving relationships with their families or their peers. Parent support groups, meanwhile, are open to any mother and father for any reason, not just issues related to drugs.
“I want to help families before it becomes a crisis,” she said. “I like being a part of supporting families.”
Bacon Street provides assistance to families struggling with addiction as well. Wills leads a “Revive” training course each month to teach the public how to administer Narcan, which is given to addicts in the throes of an opioid overdose.
Wills encourages parents to strive for open, honest relationships with their children, even if they are uncomfortable.
“A lot of parents feel scared about having open conversations about the big issues related to drugs, drinking, sex,” Wills said. “But they are already hearing about it from their peers. Parents need to create a safe place where their kids feel they can talk to them about the things they don’t understand.”