As the THINK Conference kicked off Wednesday morning at Glade Springs Resort, presenters shared a resounding message — active participants in the lives of young people can make a world of difference. 

Hosted by Mission West Virginia, the conference invited health professionals, social workers, counselors, nurses, teachers and others to learn more about how they can improve the lives of West Virginia youth.

"One person can change everything," shared keynote speaker Rhonda Sciortino, with the Successful Survivors Foundation. "I know it because I'm a living example."

As a former foster kid who suffered abuse at home, Sciortino shared both tragedy and triumph with the crowd. 

"I was disciplined with a skillet of hot oil when I was 4 years old for talking too much," she said. "Now, I get paid to talk." 

She said she was homeless at age 8, and she remembers digging in the dumpsters behind restaurants looking for discarded food. 

But she also remembers a typing teacher who took a special interest in her achievement. Years later, after starting not one, but two companies, Sciortino would have that same teacher edit her first book for publication. 

"Words are powerful," Sciortino said. "Your kind words can be a balm for someone with a wounded soul."

Sincerely spoken words can give others confidence, and make them feel valuable and loved, she said. Negative words, however, can cause hesitation and make other feel unwanted. 

"Negative words lead to poor self esteem, poor behavior and poor choices." 

She said she believes generational cycles of poverty and addiction can be broken, so long as young people have someone in their lives who cares. 

After a lengthy list of her personal accomplishments, Sciortino said it could all be traced back to "a teacher who looked me in the eyes and made me believe I was worth her extra effort." 

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During a morning breakout session, Barri Sky Faucett with Prevent Suicide WV said a lot of focus is on the opioid epidemic in the Mountain State, but she believes suicide is an equally important health topic. 

"More Americans die by suicide each year than are killed by car accidents," she said. "So why aren’t we talking about it?"

Faucett said 362 suicides were reported in West Virginia in 2017, and 393 were reported in 2018. She said the actual numbers are likely higher due to inaccurate labeling of deaths as accidents or overdoses. 

She and others who spoke during the session noted the state's deficiencies for mental health options for youth. But for counselors, teachers, parents and anyone else who interacts with youth at risk of suicide, Faucett said talking is essential. 

"Ask about suicide," Faucett shared during her presentation. "Ask the question directly, and ask about a plan."

She said when the question is asked, it makes the topic OK to talk about. 

"It makes it real." 

She encouraged people to be persistent with the young person — listen to them, respond with respect, and show them they're cared about, but don't show shock or disapproval. 

"Most people who die by suicide usually don't want to die," she said. "They just don't know what else to do."

Faucett encourages those working with youth to "Keep Calm and REACT." 

• R — Restriction of Means. Make sure access to firearms, medications and alcohol is reduced. Faucett said nearly every child in West Virginia who died by suicide in the last two years had immediate access to a firearm.

• E — Emergency Contacts. Contact information should be readily available for friends or family members the young person feels comfortable talking to. Numbers for suicide prevention hotlines, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), should also be made available. 

• A — Access to Resources. Young people need to be connected with community resources, including faith-based groups, that offer guidance. 

• C — Create a Safety Plan. A safety plan will include the identification of warning signs; internal coping strategies; social contacts/distractions; and a list of family members or friends who can help.

• T — Treatment/Referral. If treatment options are available and necessary, stay with the individual until they can get help. 

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The THINK conference continues today at Glade Springs. 

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