Awards | Community

After graduating from East Carolina University with a Master of Social Work (MSW), Breanna Culler moved away from her hometown of Stokes, North Carolina, to live and work in Poughkeepsie, New York. Then one day she received a call from Sue Anne Pilgreen, manager of the Eastern Carolina Injury Prevention Program (ECIPP) and the Pediatric Asthma Program at ECU Health.

“She’d gotten a grant for a Suicide Prevention Coordinator for ECIPP and needed to find someone to fill that position,” Culler said. “My previous internship field supervisor and a professional colleague gave her my name and she called me up.”

Culler ended up getting the job and moved back to North Carolina. Just a year after starting her new role, Culler was approached about serving as a social work field instructor for a graduate student. This year, Culler was awarded the East Carolina University School of Social Work Outstanding Field Instructor award in recognition of the work she’s done with social work graduate students.

Breanna Culler poses for a photo with her ECU School of Social Work Outstanding Field Instructor award.
Breanna Culler poses for a photo with her ECU School of Social Work Outstanding Field Instructor award.

Culler’s work primarily centers on firearm safety, safe storage of firearms and suicide prevention, specifically for veterans and LGBTQ+ individuals.

“I struggle to describe my job because our team does so much, but we provide resources and education through formal trainings such as Counseling on Access to Lethal Means (CALM) and less formal settings such as community events,” Culler said. “I am a co-lead with the Pitt County Firearm Safety Coalition, which includes law enforcement, medical providers and others from across Pitt County, and I work closely with Veteran’s Affairs and the Dr. Jesse R. Peel LGBTQ Center at ECU, along with other agencies across eastern North Carolina. If we’re not out providing education, we’re in the office preparing a program or connecting with new agencies.”

Culler said a challenge to developing these programs is how to customize the content based on location.

“Greenville is very different from other communities,” she explained. “Figuring out how to connect to rural populations and make this information and education relevant to folks living on the outskirts of town — that’s very important to me both on a professional and personal level. You have to think about those things to make any program sustainable and impactful.”

ECIPP does this by finding innovative approaches to the challenges associated with firearm safety and suicide prevention.

“For example, there are many health systems that partner with law enforcement agencies regarding firearm safety,” Culler said. “But we realized a lot of people get their guns from pawn shops, so we have initiated relationships with pawn shops around eastern North Carolina as a creative avenue to spread suicide prevention education and firearm safety resources.”

Along with her firearm safety work, Culler also partnered with the Safe Communities Coalition and Pitt County Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) to launch the You Belong Here campaign which aims to reduce suicide among LGBTQ+ youth.

“This is our other major project, as it encompasses a documentary, resource library, allyship education, parent support group and a therapy fund,” Culler said. “We started the therapy fund as a part of You Belong Here and created a partnership with mental health providers, linking those people with providers and giving financial coverage for that care. We’ve been able to share it both nationally and across the state, which is pretty cool.”

As a result of that creativity and hard work, Culler was approached early-on about taking a MSW student from ECU.

“I was only 24 and was nervous,” Culler said. She had great field instructors when she was a student, and that influenced her own interactions with her interns. “The thing I’ve enjoyed the most is seeing how the students see a new side to social work.”

Students may expect to work in child welfare or social services, but with Culler, they get to see a more community-based, out-of-the-clinical-box advocacy and education.

“Breanna is very intentional in allowing her students to play an integral part of the program development, implementation and evaluation of whatever they are doing,” said Pilgreen.

That’s why Pilgreen was not surprised when she learned that Culler had won the ECU School of Social Work Outstanding Field Instructor award. Culler, however, didn’t even realize she’d been nominated for the award until she found out she’d won.

“My intern nominated me, but I didn’t know, so it was very much a surprise,” she said. “I was excited to win the award in general, but that my intern nominated me made it much more special.”

The award recognizes student supervisors for their commitment to providing a rich learning environment and their dedication to educating the next generation of social workers while also exemplifying professional social work qualities.

“Breanna’s most recent intern played a huge role in the North Carolina Youth Suicide Prevention Symposium we hosted in March,” Pilgreen said. “The intern has a special interest in research and data collection, and she’s now working toward submitting conference presentation abstracts and a manuscript with Breanna’s guidance.”

In addition to her work, Culler now plans to become a North Carolina Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Doing so will allow her to practice independently or clinically.

“I have the degree, so I just need to go through with getting the clinical training hours to get become licensed,” she said. “Then I can become a provider serving the same communities where I work now.”

The grant funding Culler’s position was set to run out on Aug. 31, 2024, but Pilgreen recently received an unexpected call from NCDHHS asking if they could extend Culler’s position and programmatic funding for another year.

“This is unheard of,” Pilgreen said. “It only happened because of the amazing work that Breanna has not only done as a social work field instructor, but also as an avid advocate in the field of suicide prevention and firearm safety.”

Culler said she loves the work she does and was surprised to find out she had an additional year of funding.

“I love working in community health and with the prevention team,” she said. “I love the team I work with – they’re like a family. I appreciate being a part of a system that’s invested in my home.”