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VARSA reassesses efforts with youth, works to keep funding

By NATALIE MARTIN

The group working to tackle Vashon’s high levels of teen substance abuse is coming out of an ongoing dispute with Vashon Youth & Family Services (VYFS), and volunteers say they are now working to refocus their efforts in order to maintain their funding.

The Vashon Alliance to Reduce Substance Abuse (VARSA) announced last week that it will delay reapplying for the highly competitive federal grant that provides about half of its funding. Instead, the volunteers will take a year to focus on handling their other large grant, strengthen their efforts and get more volunteers and young people involved. Doing so, they believe, will help their chances of garnering the second five-year phase of the federal Drug Free Communities (DFC) grant. The grant, which VARSA was first awarded in 2009, has the potential to bring $1.25 million in funding over the decade for island efforts to address the environmental and cultural norms behind teen substance abuse.

The first five-year phase of the grant will end in September. According to VARSA coalition member Robin Blair, only about 3 percent of coalitions around the country will be awarded DFC funding this year, meaning Vashon has stiff competition to get additional funds. VARSA is now taking what volunteers call a gap year in funding, looking to up their efforts and stand out to grantors in 2015. The grant provides up to $125,000 per year.

“We’ll spend this next year …  focusing most of the funding we have left on youth leadership training and building capacity,” said Diane Kjellberg, VARSA’s co-chair. “We have to have a very strong application because it’s so competitive.”

Meanwhile, VARSA is also working to reassess how it spends its other large funding stream, the state-funded Community Prevention and Wellness Initiative (CPWI) grant.

Last year VARSA and VYFS, the fiscal sponsor for its grants, became lodged in a dispute over how the $140,000-per-year CPWI grant is spent. King County, which administers the grant, required the two groups to develop new communication and conflict management plans, something they have now completed. The county also asked the groups to revise their plan for how CPWI funds are spent, something that VARSA volunteers say there has been much confusion over, contributing to last year’s conflict.

“That’s why the county came in and said you have to work with us,” said Meri-Michael Collins, VARSA’s chair. She said communication between VYFS and VARSA could still improve some, but called the conflict “virtually gone.”

Now an ad-hoc workgroup of about 10 VARSA volunteers, several of them new to VARSA, is working through a lengthy process to identify how the organization should use its CPWI funds to best combat Vashon’s high levels of teen alcohol and drug use. The CPWI funds, many have said, complement the federal grant by providing money that can be used on programming rather than environmental changes. Currently a large portion of those funds goes to the VYFS PlaySpace, a family center that provides parenting classes, support groups, playgroups and other resources for island families with newborns and children up to age 18.

While research shows such activities do play a role in reducing teen substance abuse, VARSA leaders say the CPWI grant should fund only programs aimed at teens and young adults — those ages 12 through 24.

According to grant specifications, they say, CPWI-funded activities must be specifically aimed at reducing drug and alcohol use among Vashon’s middle and high schoolers, whose use levels are estimated every two years using the Healthy Youth Survey. The VARSA coalition decided to expand its target age group to age 24 when it considered other data, such as young people’s reportedly easy access to drugs and alcohol and recently high suicide rates, Collins said.

VARSA cannot continue to funnel the money to elementary-age programs, Collins said, as it doesn’t have data to show those programs have made an impact on substance use.

The workgroup, which meets regularly, is expected to finish an action plan outlining its programs by sometime in April. So far it has met all of its county-mandated deadlines. Missing a deadline could jeopardize the grant.

“We’re focusing on keeping that funding in the community,” Kjellberg said.

VYFS director Kathleen Johnson is not involved in the workgroup, but said she believes the group has made good progress. While she wasn’t aware of the grant requirement to fund only programs for teens or young adults, she said about 40 percent of CPWI grant funds currently go to PlaySpace programs for newborns through children age 12.

Johnson said she recognizes that this PlaySpace funding could be lost, a notion that earlier this year spurred concern among parents, talk on social media and even calls to state Sen. Sharon Nelson’s office. However, Johnson said she simply hopes that workgroup members can use the evidence they have — Vashon surveys, research and other data — to determine what community programs will best work to reduce teen substance use.

“Any time you can build your program on solid evidence and (demonstrate) progress, that’s good for making lasting change,” she said.

As for the PlaySpace programs, she said the agency is constantly looking to diversify its funding and will make sustaining popular programs a priority.

“We operate in a world where grants start and they stop,” she said. “We recognize that things may change, and we are making sure we build capacity.”

As for VARSA, the group of volunteers is now juggling the CPWI process mandated by the state and planning how to best use the remaining months of its DFC funding. Over the past several years, DFC funds have been used to fund a grant coordinator position, volunteer training, drug take-back events and environmental efforts such as one to get more retailers checking IDs and one to clean up so-called hot spots for drug and alcohol activity on the island. Preliminary survey data shows VARSA efforts may be making an impact in younger grades.

The group, which volunteers say has been distracted by last year’s dispute and the CPWI process, will use its gap year without DFC funding focus on building a cadre of dedicated volunteers and getting more youth involved as well.

Collins noted that the middle and high schools are growing their prevention clubs, but VARSA hopes to see more initiatives led by teens rather than adult volunteers. One 19-year-old volunteer, for instance, is currently helping VARSA build its website and create a presence on social media.

“There’s a shift nationally to not have it be a bunch of adults running around doing things,” Collins said. “If it’s for the kids, the kids should be the ones doing most of this work.”

Blair, who recently attended a federal conference put on for groups applying for DFC funding, said in an email that while the next round of funding will be extremely competitive, officials with the federal program have indicated VARSA has a good chance of being funded again, and it can always apply again in future years should they not earn the grant in 2015.

In the meantime, Blair said no local programs are at risk since the DFC grant did not fund programming. She believes many efforts that began with DFC funding, such as the drug take-back events, will be carried on by volunteers. Collins agreed.

“A lot of this stuff doesn’t take money,” she said. “It takes time.”

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