City youth club, partners work to fight teen alcohol abuse

VERGENNES — As the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes enters the home stretch of its three-year community-wide effort to address substance abuse among teens and young adults, club and local officials are convinced their work and partnerships with schools, state and local health providers, and police have paid off.
The effort began in January 2008, when the Vermont Department of Health awarded the club a three-year, $360,000 Strategic Prevention Framework grant from a pot of federal funds.
The club used the money to hire a prevention coordinator, Jessica Hellyer, and spent most of the first year conducting surveys and meeting with local teens, adults, police and school officials to determine how to best address area substance abuse issues.
Club leaders chose to target alcohol use by teens and young adults rather than drug abuse, a decision based on that research, and worked with the health department to select programs.
The effort really ramped up about a year ago, coincidentally about when the tenure of Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel began. Merkel, who has worked with the club speaking in schools and in its grant-funded law enforcement efforts, has been impressed.
“If there’s one part that’s most effective, I think it’s just getting the message out to the kids, either through having the kids involved in the programs, or the educational piece,” Merkel said. “I haven’t had one complaint about anything they’ve done or any negative comment.
And I think the biggest thing, the most beneficial part of their program, is being in contact with the kids.”
Those programs — many of which could be at risk when the grant expires — have included:
• Educational presentations in schools, including to all Vergennes Union High School 7th-graders. According to club data, club officials or speakers have reached about 430 students.
• Extra funding for drunk-driving checkpoints, operated by Bristol, Vergennes and Vermont State police; for the local police Stop Teen Alcohol Risk Team (START), which responds to reports of teen drinking parties and is coordinated by Bristol police; and for extra patrols during prom and graduation season.
• Home-based seminars hosted by cooperative parents that feature a video created by Middlebury physician Breena Holmes about the dangers alcohol poses to teen brains, including long-term memory problems as well as the risk of becoming addicted or making poor choices.
• Expanded club activities to include parents and spread the prevention and education message. Club teen director Mike Reiderer said many of the activities are intended to be “capacity-building” by boosting teens’ self-confidence and esteem, thus enabling them to more easily resist the lure of substances. They are also intended to strengthen adults’ ties with the club, he said, and offer presentations on how to talk to children about substance abuse.
• A student-created video shown at basketball games and online; it addresses the legal issues adults face if they host under-age drinking parties, a common thread of the educational material.
• Media ads.
• “Sticker Shock” campaigns in which teens and police put stickers on cases of beer pointing out the legal liabilities to adults who purchase alcohol for minors; those efforts have earned strong cooperation from local merchants.
• Alcohol training for local servers and retail clerks in cooperation with the Department of Liquor Control.
• Stuffing 500 local paycheck envelopes with educational materials.
• Speaking at community events to raise awareness of the issues and the club’s effort.
The grant has also funded VUHS prevention coordinator Nate Kittredge. Among other things, Kittredge works with a high-school level club that plans and runs substance-free events and spreads an anti-substance message and with a middle school anti-tobacco group, helps coordinate Addison Northwest Supervisory Union elementary school efforts, and coordinates an on-line alcohol education course for all VUHS 9th-graders.
Reiderer believes the overall effort has made an impact because of the coordination of the message.
“That’s one thing that we’ve really learned through this process. You can’t have the boys and girls club and schools doing this educational piece, the police departments doing their enforcement piece. We need to be working together,” Reiderer said.
Sarah Roy is the Department of Health’s Addison County regional prevention consultant and, among other responsibilities, helps oversee the grant effort. She said the club’s efforts to bring together all facets of prevention have paid off.
“It has created a better partnership through the law enforcement effort … and the supervisory union,” Roy said. “There have been a lot of great partnerships.”
All the officials agree the effect of all the effort, programs and coordination are hard to quantify. Probably the best measure will not be available until late in 2011, when the latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey results come out.
Those surveys are given to middle and high school students every two years. The most recent survey results, which club and health department officials used to design their tactics, date to 2009.
The timing is less than ideal for measuring the work of the club and its many partners, but Reiderer is confident good has been done and the numbers will bear that out. For example, he said those who have seen Dr. Holmes’ video tell him they will treat the subject of alcohol differently.
“People are a little shocked by the information and acting on it,” he said. “We brought some media consultants to help us with this (video project), and … based on the information they’ve made changes on how they deal with alcohol and their children.”
Roy said the health department only approved programs that are shown to have produced results elsewhere, including work like Kittredge’s and the club’s, in which teens help design programs.
“We definitely are highly encouraged to use … evidence-based strategies,” she said. “We know more empowerment is going to lead to changes.”
Experts elsewhere agree that prevention efforts are hard to evaluate. One report, however, looked at a nine-year effort in Columbia County, Wisconsin, that used many of the same concepts and programs as in the Vergennes area. Their results showed uniformly positive trends for alcohol and tobacco use among 7th-, 9th- and 11th-graders from 2001 to 2009.
Roy believes the joint prevention efforts in Vergennes, and elsewhere in the county, are bearing fruit.
“We’ll never be able to say Sticker Shock did this, but we’ll be able to say the combined effort, law enforcement, the school effort, the prevention effort, the treatment effort, anybody working on this issue in this community, those all lead to changes,” she said.
Whether the programs can continue is up in the air. Another grant is possible. Kittredge hopes for outside funding or community support if health department support dries up.
“There are all these key programs in the school and community that could be leaving,”
Kittredge said. “That’s what it could come down to, (are) people willing to pay for good programs. That’s what it’s going to take for these programs to survive.”
Reiderer believes spending $360,000 over three years is not as much money as it may seem at first blush.
“It’s exponentially less than the alcohol industry is spending on advertising. It’s way less than is out there on the other side in a lot of ways. Yeah, it’s a big chunk of money, and I would never downplay the significance of that,” he said. “But it is a drop in the bucket compared to what is out there trying to get kids to engage in alcohol use and other risky behaviors.”
Reiderer is optimistic the momentum is there for the boys and girls club to remain at the forefront of some sort of coordinated prevention effort regardless of funding.
“We certainly look at what we are doing now to have an immediate effect,” he said. “But we also hope it’s long-term and want to be able to continue doing as much of this work as we possibly can post-grant period.”
Roy said she hopes one grant target can be met.
“Our goal with the Strategic Prevention Framework grant is they can build that infrastructure, that they can keep those efforts moving forward, even without funding,” Roy said. “I’m very optimistic about what they’re doing, and it’s great to see them working together.”
Merkel, for one, is sure the effort should continue.
“If one kid gets the message, it’s worth it,” Merkel said. “But it’s not just one kid in this case. They’re reaching out to a bunch of kids.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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