County bags major grant to steer youth away from drugs & alcohol

MIDDLEBURY — A new grant will direct more than $600,000 to Addison County over the next five years for programs aimed at preventing local teens and young adults from abusing alcohol, marijuana and prescription drugs.
After years of fighting the opiate epidemic in Vermont at the point where people need help cleaning up, one local leader charged with spending the new grant money is happy to open a new front in the battle.
“Let’s really (attack) the root causes,” said Kate McGowan, executive director of the United Way of Addison County.
The major new federal grant was recently awarded through the Regional Prevention Partnerships initiative, and it calls for annual infusions of $130,000 in each of the next five years for anti-drug efforts focusing on residents ages 12 to 25.
The United Way of Addison County and the Middlebury office of the Vermont Department of Health will administer the grant money. United Way volunteer coordinator Jesse Brooks will serve as coordinator of the Addison County Regional Prevention Partnerships initiative.
“I’m excited about executing our plan,” Brooks said on Thursday.
It’s a five-year plan that the United Way, Department of Health and Brooks will spend the next four of five months developing. And the group will create that plan using feedback from local stakeholders — including youths, parents, police and area nonprofits that work in the drug prevention field. But first, the group will review the latest statistics showing drug abuse trends in Addison County, and then vet proven programs that could successfully divert young people away from the use of pot, pills and alcohol.
Local officials said the grant will allow them to broaden what has been a reactive battle against drug abuse.
“We’ve spent the past seven years working around the opiate crisis and the gap that we were focused on filling is in-county treatment,” McGowan said.
With progress made on the treatment front, McGowan and her colleagues are pleased to have more resources now to allow human services agencies pivot to prevention strategies.
Moira Cook is director of the Middlebury District Office of the Vermont Department of Health. She noted six other Vermont counties have already received similar grant funding through the Regional Prevention Partnerships initiative. Addison County’s grant funding has come later because its substance abuse situation is not as bad as in other areas of the state, according to Cook. She and her colleagues believe receiving the prevention money a little later might have a silver lining in that it will allow Addison County to learn from the programming successes and setbacks in other regions.
“The exciting thing is that we haven’t had prevention resources in this county for a while,” Cook said. “We have a small tobacco control grant through the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes, but this is the biggest influx of prevention-focused dollars in a while.”
A SUBSTANTIAL PROBLEM
While Addison County is not a substance abuse hotbed for youth compared to some other areas of the state, there is still a substantial problem, local officials noted. Cook pointed to statistics from the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey of Addison County students in grades 9 to 12. That survey revealed that:
•  28 percent of local respondents said they’d consumed alcohol during the past 30 days, compared to the statewide average of 30 percent in that peer group.
•  15 percent of local respondents said they’d binged on alcohol (five or more drinks in a row) during the past 30 days, compared to the statewide average of 16 percent.
•  20 percent of local respondents admitted to having used marijuana during the past 30 days, compared to 22 percent statewide.
•  5 percent of local students answering the survey admitted to have consumed a prescription drug not prescribed to them during the past 30 days, which mirrored the statewide average.
“Any young adult who’s using at an early age is a real concern for this whole community,” Cook said. “Just having an opportunity to get further ahead to try and prevent kids from using marijuana and binge drinking is a huge opportunity for us.”
Organizers are planning an Oct. 25 community meeting, at which the Regional Prevention Partnerships team will explain the parameters of the grant to local stakeholders and share statistics on substance abuse among young people in Addison County. They will ask for ideas on how to use the money.
McGowan said up to 10 percent of the grant funding can be spent on law enforcement activities — such as more party patrols, sobriety checks and the training of officers to better diagnose those suspected of driving under the influence of marijuana.
All of the proposals will be closely scrutinized, she added. State and federal officials will require very strict reporting on how the grant money is spent and how the resulting programs are — or aren’t — making a difference for Addison County youths, McGowan noted.
“This grant is focused on some very clear deliverables that are founded on evidence-based practices,” she said. “We are quite limited in this grant, in that the vast majority of the work that can happen will be off of a menu of things that have truly been vetted and proven to work.”
Some of those proven programs, according to McGowan, include:
•  School-based mentoring programs.
•  Prescription drug drop-off sites and information.
•  Outreach through social media and other platforms, helping parents recognize the signs of substance abuse in their children and help them confront their problems.
Organizers stressed the funding will be used to complement, and not duplicate, current Addison County programs that help youths battle substance abuse.
The expectation is that the prevention programs created through the grant will survive long after the money is gone.
“My belief is it’s not very effective to have single grants and send people off to work for themselves,” McGowan said. “We’re really looking at this as a collaboration.”
Brooks will be doing a lot of the work in the trenches to coordinate grant activities. She is attending a four-day conference this week to better understand the ground rules for the grant and the kinds of local projects it could help fund.
“I’m excited about executing our plan,” Brooks said.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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