City club helps teens shun alcohol

VERGENNES — After more than a year of research and cooperation with the Vermont Department of Health, the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes is ramping up a major community-wide effort to address alcohol abuse among teens and young adults.
That effort began in January 2008, when the Department of Health gave the club a three-year, $360,000 Strategic Prevention Framework grant from a pot of federal funds.
Since then, the club has hired a prevention coordinator, Jessica Hellyer; studied substance abuse in the area and chosen to focus on alcohol abuse by teens and young adults rather than drug abuse, a decision based on the research; worked with health department officials to select programs; and hosted a successful kickoff dinner.
Plans for the next eight months include media blitzes; passing out educational information at community events such as the city’s Holiday Stroll and Addison County Fair and Field Days; outreach to families through club events; educational forums and other efforts both for and with the help of local parents and teens; a special effort next year to reach young adults; and ongoing cooperation with local police, school prevention specialists and volunteers.
Club director Mike Reiderer said club and health department officials have chosen tactics with proven results.
“That’s one thing the Department of Health has been adamant about,” Reiderer said. “The projects we’re looking at have been shown to have the effect we want to have.”
Education on the health aspects of youth and young adult drinking will be emphasized throughout. For example, Reiderer said that many believed drunk driving was a bigger concern than the alcohol itself.
“What’s left out is the effect alcohol has on the brain, the much higher rate of addiction in people who start drinking at a younger age. The younger somebody starts, the more likely they are to become addicted,” he said. “Those facts aren’t out there. And as a result of that, a lot of our work over this next year is going to be trying to get that word out.”
The club spent about $130,000 on researching and developing its plan, and will spend about $120,000 more through June. The balance of the grant, pending health department approval, will be spent by June 2011.
The club chose to focus especially on letting 18-to-25-year-old adults know that the alcohol itself posed a risk, Reiderer said, citing results from focus groups.
“We gave them the Department of Health definition of binge drinking of being five or more drinks in one sitting in a matter of a couple of hours. (They said) ‘That’s not binge drinking. That’s just a weekend,’” he said. “So what the Department of Health is using as a trigger for a problem is just a habit (for them).”
In research, the club also learned that under-age drinkers typically don’t buy their own liquor. So, the club is even planning a recognition night to honor county retailers’ compliance with age laws.
“Under-age drinkers are not getting their alcohol by going to the corner store … That’s the good news,” Reiderer said. “The bad news is their getting a lot from family members, parents, older siblings, older friends. So it gives us a clear focus that we need to show people that underage drinking is a problem. There are … health risks for the underage drinkers, and legal risks for the adults.”
Those legal risks will be highlighted next spring, Hellyer said, in a local “Parents Who Host Can Lose the Most” campaign to coincide with a statewide effort. As well as ads in local media, Vergennes Union High School students and club members recently joined community volunteers to film a re-enactment of what can go wrong at a parent-hosted teen drinking party.
Reiderer said it would illustrate a central message.
“It’s people’s perception that if … parents … collect the keys at the door and everyone spends the night and leaves in the morning that’s OK, because the biggest danger is they get into an accident,” Reiderer said. But, he added, “If something happens on their property, they’re liable. A group of kids having beers, it can get out of hand pretty easily.”
Another key piece in the effort to involve parents in the discussion is the Boys & Girls Club’s “Fan Club” program. They have already planned events through July for parents and children at which information will be handed out.
Last month, club volunteers handed out information at the city-sponsored Haunted Forest before Halloween, and the Fan Club held a spaghetti supper and bingo night at the Vergennes Congregational Church. Reiderer and Hellyer hoped 50 people might attend; about 115 showed up.
“We were able to talk to a lot of people and get the word out,” Reiderer said. “We got their names and phone numbers, and we’ll be able to get back in touch.”
Attempts will be made to support parents in their direct interactions with their children. For example, the November Fan Club activity includes a “Difficult Conversations” presentation.
Another effort will work on the supply side issue — a repeat of last spring’s “Sticker Shock” campaign. Club members and VUHS students will get rides to retailers in police cruisers and put stickers on cases of beer informing purchasers of the legal consequences of sharing alcohol with minors.
The best measuring stick of how well the effort works will be the bi-annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey. VUHS students filled them out in the falls of 2007 and 2009 and will do so again in 2011, as the grant is expiring.
Reiderer said therefore that it would be challenging to quantify results, although the club will try to track the prevention effort.
“Particularly with the media campaigns we’ll get a lot of the media feedback, for sure, and we’ll be working with groups of parents to identify some of what they feel worked,” he said.
Hellyer said the also grant requires regular reports on program details, such as event attendance and numbers of flyers passed out, that will provide helpful data.
Both are optimistic the effort will help local youth.
Hellyer said that the crowd that showed up at the Congregational Church offers evidence that the community is ready to step forward.
“I’m just really excited,” she said. “That’s a sign that people are aware that there’s an issue and are ready to help address it.”
Reiderer said the program might even have a permanent future, although there are no funding guarantees.
“Hopefully we find a way to keep something,” Reiderer said. “It would be great to keep a prevention coordinator on here and keep the Boys & Girls Club at the forefront of that effort.”

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