In the months since disaffiliating with the state and national Communities in Schools and changing its name, Communities Supporting Schools in Wayne County has picked up momentum in unexpected ways, says executive director Selena Bennett.

The non-profit agency, which oversees the School Success program at six public schools, also handles Teen Court.

Several opportunities have surfaced through the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council, she said this week, of potential funding to pick up two new programs for CSS.

"We're trying to stay ahead of the curve with the Raise the Age legislation," she said. The pending move goes into effect in December of 2019.

"Sixteen to 18-year-olds will be considered juveniles in the state of North Carolina instead of adults. With that, there has been a big push across the state to align services to be better prepared to work with this 16- to 18-year-old group."

United Way funding has afforded CSS the ability to provide services for that demographic through Teen Court. But that financial support is not guaranteed when the changes go into effect.

"We have been participating with Judge Ericka James and the sheriff's department and the school system in lots of community meetings in an effort to address how are we going to work with 16- to 18-year-olds as juveniles instead of adults," she said.

One way is through a mediation program that will be introduced as a pilot at an undetermined middle school, Bennett said.

"We are working with professor Jon Powell from the Campbell University School of Law," she said. "He is going to be guiding us through this program because he has done this program in Wake County and has been very successful."

The other program which will be developed is a community service effort for youths who have committed a crime.

All three programs -- Teen Court, mediation and community service -- reflect the mission of keeping youth in school and educating them about consequences of their actions, Bennett said.

At the same time, the idea of doing business differently brings with it other requirements -- each of the JCPC programs call for the local agency to chip in funds.

"In other words, we don't just get to run these programs. They require us, sometimes it's a cash match," she said. "But we're required to put local cash into each of these programs."

That's why the annual CSS fundraiser -- "Have a Heart for Kids," planned for March 23 -- is even more important this year.

"It's not that we're fundraising to give us pay raises," she said. "We're fundraising because we'll try to do this thing to help the kids in this community benefit from this program."

The event, taking place that Friday evening, March 23, will be at the Terrace Room from 6 to 9 p.m. It is an opportunity to network and support the CSS programs, Bennett said. It features sparkles and spirits, appetizers and a silent auction.

This marks the first fundraiser since pulling out of the CIS network in June 2017, she said. While it entailed a lot of work, she says she has no regrets about the move.

"New doors have opened," she said. "Had we still been part of the old network, we would not have been allowed to have expanded on the JCPC side because that did not fit their model. Because of the fact that we pulled out, we are allowed to operate programs where they are needed."

The successful momentum of CSS also continues, she said, recalling when it launched the fledgling "graduation coach" program at Goldsboro High School to address lagging graduation rates.

"Barbara (Wilkins, graduation coach), when she started at GHS, the graduation rate was 47 percent," she said. "The graduation rate last year was 80.6 percent, and that's over a span of eight years.

"Now we can't take the credit for all of that. We were one piece of the planning and the initiation at GHS to work with kids and to raise that graduation rate."

Last year, she continued, the graduation rate in the state was 86.5 percent, with the county being slightly behind that, at 84.3 percent.

There are a lot of hoops, she said -- from meeting mandates handed down by the state and other agencies to funding hurdles and different needs around the county.

Fortunately, she said, Wayne County boasts many solid efforts and wonderful partnerships.

"The school system does a tremendous job, the support that we can provide to them enables them to work closely with the community, with businesses, with mentoring," she said. "We have churches, we have businesses, we have individuals, the DA's office, the sheriff's department, all the school resource officers, the juvenile court counselors office and then we have the Department of Public Safety."

Tickets are currently on sale for the "Have a Heart for Kids" event. They are $40 a person or $75 a couple. Email sbennett@waynecss.org for more information.