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To a standing ovation from substance abuse and addiction treatment specialists across the state, the Owen County Teen Alcohol Prevention Project Youth Task Force was honored July 21 with the Robert Straus Award for outstanding contributions for substance abuse prevention and treatment practices in Kentucky.
“Ladies and gentlemen, these are your future colleagues,” said Donna Hillman, state director of the Department for Behavioral Health, Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities, under which prevention efforts in the Commonwealth of Kentucky fall.
The group was nominated for the award, which was presented at the annual awards banquet of the Kentucky School for Alcohol and Other Drug Studies at Northern Kentucky University by Amy Baker, director of the Substance Abuse Prevention Program across the state.
“Owen County TAPP has demonstrated what an amazing, positive impact a group of young people can have on its community,” Baker wrote in her nomination statement. “I feel their greatest accomplishment is their contribution toward lowering the incidence of underage drinking in Owen County. Through their efforts and the support of their community partners, the underage drinking rates in Owen County have been reduced.”
Owen County TAPP was formed three years ago when the community was identified as having a problem with underage drinking despite the fact the county is dry – or does not have packaged beer and liquor sales in the community.
The community was selected for a grant to target underage drinking because of the consequence data that indicated alcohol use in the community was relatively high compared with other counties across the state. A readiness survey of local leaders determined that the community was ready to fight the issue locally.
NorthKey Community Care, the community mental health agency, which provides mental health and substance abuse prevention and treatment services in Owen County, serves as the fiscal agent for the organization and has provided support to the organization over the past three years.
NorthKey leaders were on hand at the award ceremony as youth received the award.
“You are doing a great job and making a real difference,” said Owen Nichols, CEO of NorthKey, in an email after the ceremony. “Thanks for transforming lives and communities through excellent service.”
At its inception, board members determined that the only way to transform lives and address the underage drinking issue in the community was to engage the youth and to educate them on the consequences of drinking.
“We knew that the work we did had to be something in which the youth were engaged, not something we did to them or for them,” said Tony Watkins, chairman of Owen County TAPP. “And we knew that we wanted to address the root causes of the problem of underage drinking, not just look for band-aide solutions.”
Some of the identified causes included: a culture that said teen drinking is just a part of growing up; little for teens to do in Owen County; and a belief by adults that teens are going to drink regardless of what they said.
“We knew that by addressing these root causes we could begin to change the patterns in Owen County,” Watkins added.
Students were brought on board early on and given an active role in the work of the task force. They plan alternative events, such as the Rebel Palooza, which was held last October after homecoming opposite the senior bonfire, a traditional drinking event for many students. They participate in the media campaigns, such as the “I’d Rather” campaign that is currently under way and includes posters, silhouettes and a billboard of local students.
And they are active in educating other students about the negative affects of underage drinking. The students have been asked to present at several regional conferences. They presented at the National PRIDE Conference in April and in July students led the day-long youth track at the regional System of Care conference in Florence.
Additionally, students have formed Owen County SERVE, participating in a variety of service activities in Owen County and beyond. They recently completely a week-long service project in Owen County involving 65 students and 30 adults.
The group also learned in July it will receive the Youth Empowerment Systems Community Group of the Year Award at the Kentucky Prevention Network’s annual conference in September.
Mary Kennedy, one of the teens involved said she thinks that the work of TAPP is beginning to change the culture of the community.
“When we started, I think we reached the kids who were on the fence, who hadn’t decided if they were going to drink or not,” she said. “Now, I think we’re beginning to reach those who have already chosen to drink but who are deciding that they don’t really have to in order to have fun.”
Recent data shows she’s correct.
Owen County students in the 6th, 8th, 10th and 12th grades participated in the KIP survey for the first time in 2006. Among other things, the survey records students’ self-reported assessment of their drinking habits.
In the 2006 survey, 85 percent of Owen seniors reported they’d used alcohol. That percentage dropped to 61 percent in the 2008 survey.
“I think this is a result of students being empowered to say ‘I’m OK if I don’t drink,’” said Patti Clark, coordinator of the project.
Students at the four grade levels reported fewer drinking episodes in the past 30 days. Drunkenness rates decreased at the 8th, 10th and 12th grade levels, with the largest decrease noted at the 10th grade level when the number of students who reported they’d been drunk or high in the past 30 days fell 24 percent.
Perceived use of alcohol by friends also decreased at all four grade levels, with students reporting that a fewer number of their friends are using alcohol without their parents knowing about it. And past year alcohol use also decreased across the board by students in Owen County.
“There are still some areas we need to address as evidenced by the KIP data,” Clark said. “The main one is that the number of students at the 8th and 12th grades who don’t perceive harm in regular alcohol use actually increased. We have to do a better job at educating students and their parents about the negative effectives of underage alcohol use on the teen brain.”
The grant funding for Owen County TAPP is nearly complete. The organization, along with other organizations serving children, youth and their families in Owen County are searching for local, regional and national support to continue their work in the community.
“We have to find new money to continue this effort,” Kennedy said. “We feel like we’ve just gotten the momentum going and we don’t know where additional funds will come from.”
TAPP, along with the Kentuckians Encouraging Youth to Succeed project, and HOPE’s Hands, the community partnership that brings all youth-serving agencies together to address the issues that impact the success of students and their families; will begin a capital campaign in the next couple of months to raise local dollars to keep these programs in place in Owen County.
“Owen County has been incredibly lucky to receive grant funding in the past to address substance abuse and mental health issues that keep our kids from being successful,” said Clark, who also serves as chairman of HOPE’s Hands. “Now, it’s time for the community to realize that we have to take responsibility for these issues and step up and join these youth in their fight to be successful, productive members of society.”
It’s time to follow the lead of our youth.
“They have been bold. They have made sacrifices by standing up and speaking out about underage alcohol use. They have given up friends and activities and events that meant a lot to them in order to change the culture of Owen County,” Clark added. “They have been recognized across the state for their work. As a community it’s time for us to stand behind them and support them in order to allow them to continue their work.”