Grant targets youth drug prevention
by Kellen Moore
A Watauga County group working to prevent underage alcohol consumption and drug abuse is about to amplify its efforts thanks to a $625,000 federal grant.
The grant, provided through the Drug-Free Communities Support Program, will provide the funding over a five-year period to the Watauga County Substance Abuse Prevention Collaborative.
The collaborative — which includes members from various disciplines — will work in partnership with Project Lazarus, an initiative that started in Wilkes County and works to prevent drug overdoses.
Together, the groups will focus on building communitywide participation in prevention efforts, focusing specifically on underage alcohol use and prescription drug abuse.
Angie Hagaman, who leads the collaborative, said she and other members were thrilled to be among only 60 recipients of 364 that applied nationwide.
She said an assessment of community needs quickly revealed the most prevalent areas of concern for Watauga County.
“The data showed that underage drinking was the biggest substance abuse concern facing the youth in Watauga County,” Hagaman said.
The presence of a university and heavy tourism were contributing factors, Hagaman said.
“Alcohol is just sort of a part of the culture, and underage consumption isn’t that taboo,” she said.
Other assessments showed that marijuana and prescription drug abuse were neck-and-neck for the second leading substance abuse concern, she said.
Because no local groups were focusing specifically on marijuana prevention, it made sense to partner instead with Project Lazarus, which is housed within the Appalachian Regional Healthcare System.
Through the grant, the Watauga County Substance Abuse Prevention Collaborative will first reach out to the surrounding community and involve every sector in the effort.
Town hall meetings and discussions will be facilitated to get more people involved, Hagaman said.
The second arm of the grant seeks to tangibly reduce substance abuse and use, using the Youth Risk Behavior Survey as a benchmark.
Several options already have been planned to advance the goals, Hagaman said.
Two high school students between 16 and 18 will be hired to work 10 hours per week, helping determine how to create a culture where underage drinking and prescription drug abuse are more taboo.
“You can’t just say, ‘don’t drink’ — that’s not ‘cool,’” Hagaman said.
The grant money also will pay for a Spanish-English translator position and about $14,000 for additional school resource officer hours at high school events and countywide, she said.
The collaborative also will offer a Good Neighbor program that encourages people to get training or sign pledges committing to preventing youth alcohol and drug abuse.
“Good Neighbor” stickers will designate doctor’s offices that take part in training to prevent doctor-shopping, a practice in which people visit multiple doctors to stockpile prescriptions. Bars and restaurants that participate in a responsible alcohol servers program, as well as schools also can be recognized as “Good Neighbors.”
Parents who commit to monitoring alcohol access at home may be listed on a publicly accessible registry, and college students who pledge not to provide alcohol to those under 21 will be able to receive a discount on apartment housing fees, Hagaman said.
Rachel Vandenende, Watauga County coalition director for Project Lazarus, said they also hope to establish a permanent lockbox at a local law enforcement office in which people can securely and anonymously drop off unused medicines at any time.
She said prescription drug abuse is a growing concern across the nation, and that every community is seeing problems.
“People just assume that because they’re prescription drugs, it’s safe,” Vandenende said.
The Drug-Free Communities Program was created in 1997 and reauthorized by Congress in 2001 and 2006. Since 1998, it has awarded more than 2,000 grants to communities across the nation.
“While law enforcement efforts will always serve a vital role in keeping our communities safe, we know that stopping drug use before it ever begins is always the smartest and most cost-effective way to reduce drug use and its consequences,” said Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Pamela Hyde, administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, stressed that a communitywide effort will provide the best chance for young people to thrive.
“The driving forces of substance abuse prevention are the local community prevention and treatment programs that engage youth and their families in every facet of their lives — home, school, places of worship, health care settings, playgrounds and community centers,” Hyde said.