(WVU Photo/Davidson Chan)

Sam Wilkinson works at the Center for Excellence in Disabilities in Morgantown, West Virginia.

In March of 2022, West Virginia University launched a new prevention program aimed at helping at-risk youth.

The Regional Transition Navigator started under the guidance of Leslie Cottrell, director of the Center for Excellence in Disabilities, and is funded by a $432,000 grant from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. 

The new program will offer a variety of aid and services to those aged 14-25 who are experiencing mental illness, substance use disorders or serious emotional disturbances. 

There is an emphasis on those experiencing homelessness, aging out of foster care or juvenile detention or those at risk for human trafficking. 

Sam Wilkinson, program manager for the Regional Transition Navigator, has been a part of the program since February of 2022. 

Wilkinson said the main resource provided by the program is a wide range of expertise such as crisis housing, psychiatric care and suicide prevention.

“What we have is a support based model for those individuals connecting them with services available on the local, regional and state level, and what those services can be. It's a huge variety of services, in terms of what's out there,” Wilkinson said. 

He added the program partners with other organizations in Morgantown to provide individual needs of students, whether its housing, utilities, food, healthcare or violence prevention support.

“If we don't have the expertise, we're going to go out and find somebody who does have the expertise, and we're going to work within the parameters of what they recommend to pass that information on to the individual,” Wilkinson said. 

Even if someone is not of age to receive the program’s services, Wilkinson said a relationship can be established until they are old enough to receive aid.

We try to be maximally flexible,” he said. “I am a huge believer in the idea that there is not a right answer that applies to everybody. “

The program is based on referrals, which can be made by concerned individuals. This referral system utilizes a large network of community outreach where people most likely to be in contact with at-risk individuals can refer them to the program. 

Wilkinson does not recruit 14 to 25-year-olds who have histories of mental health instability, substance use or a fear that they might become homeless. 

“Instead I recruit for social workers, coaches, teachers, counselors, nurses, doctors, you know, pastors, whomever, that are much more likely to encounter an individual that fits that profile and think to themselves, 'Hey, RTN is out there that might be able to assist,'” Wilkinson said. 

Other than their location at the Center of Excellence in Disabilities near the Morgantown airport, there are several locations in the state, including one in Barboursville, Martinsburg, Mount Hope and Oak Hill. 

“Addiction is an equal opportunity opponent,” Wilkinson said in a press release. “Lives are lived not in blacks and whites, but in shades of gray. Our long-term desired outcomes are to help folks into better situations than the ones they are currently in, no matter what that situation might be."

According to Wilkinson, there are two aspects to the day-to-day workload of the program: client work and infrastructure building. Since each client is met with individualized aid, not every day will be the same; however, infrastructure building remains consistent. 

“The infrastructure building is making connections with groups around the state, making presentations to groups around the state, recruiting for individuals that we can add to our mailing list that we can then contact in the future.” Wilkinson said. 

The program stems from research that shows prevention programs are successful in reducing the risk of substance abuse and addiction. This program recognizes the high risk of drug use during the transition from adolescence into adulthood and aims to help those overcome the challenges associated with that transition. 

“The idea is, if you can intervene, while they're on that precipice, if you can help them overcome the challenges that we all face, as we get older, and as we mature into adults, that maybe we can keep all of those people sort of staying on the on the one path rather than the other,” Wilkinson said.