Island wins grant to address teen drug use

Vashon’s Healthy Community Network has won a highly competitive federal grant that will enable the newly formed coalition to undertake a number of strategies in an effort to reverse the Island’s high rate of teen alcohol and drug use.

The $115,000 grant, which could total more than $1 million if Vashon receives subsequent funding over the next nine years, is geared toward what some consider both a daunting and promising set of efforts — attempting to address not individual problems but the attitudes, norms and environment that have made Vashon a community with a demonstrated youth substance abuse problem.

Just two weeks ago, the Vashon Island School District released the latest results from the state’s Healthy Youth Survey, which showed Vashon seniors and sophomores report using drugs and alcohol at a rate far above the state average and that they perceive the community as being tolerant towards such use. The survey two years ago revealed similar numbers.

“When I saw the need, it was just very clear to me that this is what we needed — a grant that would enable us to mount a sustained, multi-year effort,” said Carl Winge, who chairs the Vashon Healthy Community Network.

The devastating impact of underage substance abuse “is more widespread than you might think,” he added. “It’s just overwhelming to me to see the extent of the damage to people’s lives.”

But he and others involved in the network’s broad-based coalition say they believe Vashon has the kind of vibrant and engaged community necessary to turn the situation around.

“I’ve seen firsthand what a huge difference a group of committed people can make,” he said. “And we certainly have a large group of committed people on Vashon.”

Claudia Gross-Shader, the network’s vice-chair, agreed.

“I think we see evidence already of the culture changing. In the last few years, we’ve been talking more candidly among the generations about drug and alcohol use on the Island. That’s an aspect of cultural change already happening,” she said.

News of the grant is exciting, she added. “But I also recognize that we have an opportunity. And with that opportunity comes responsibility to really rise to the occasion. This is just the beginning.”

The volunteer-run Healthy Community Net-work was rekindled two years ago after having lain dormant for several years — and, since then, a number of Islanders have poured countless hours into the organization, identifying the most important issues to address and beginning the hard work of building a coalition and securing funding.

The grant, $115,000 the first year and up to $125,000 for each of the next nine years, will enable the network to hire a coordinator. In the first year of funding, the network also plans to strengthen its community mobilization skills, strengthen the coalition and begin addressing youth substance abuse by undertaking an awareness campaign about the harmful effects of drugs, alcohol and tobacco on youth, according to the network’s 196-page application for the grant.

The network also plans to involve youth in the effort, supporting and enhancing youth mentorship efforts as well as a range of youth-initiated activities.

“A key part of this grant is youth participation,” Gross-Shader said.

The grant, awarded by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, currently headed by former Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, is highly competitive. Stephanie Atherton, a prevention manager for the state Department of Social and Health Services, said only a fraction of those organizations that submit proposals get past the initial screening, and after that, fewer than a third get funded. In Washington state, nine other communities received funding this year for the first time — including coalitions on San Juan Island and in Carnation, Toppenish and Long Beach. Nationwide, 160 new groups got funded.

Once funded, coalitions or agencies get annual funding for 10 years if they can show they’re making progress, she said.

In other parts of the state, the efforts have been successful, Atherton added. “It’s allowed people to really work on changing the culture.”

Islanders who work in the field of substance abuse prevention say they’re pleased by news of the grant. Historically, the Island hasn’t done well in such competitive arenas, noted Stephen Bogan, a therapist who co-chairs the Vashon Island Prevention and Intervention Team, because Vashon is considered both a wealthy and non-diverse community.

“The fact that we got this grant is testimony to all the work members of the community have done,” he added.

But Bogan, who until recently held a high-ranking position in the state’s Division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse, said such grants can be difficult to administer because of the federal government’s sometimes onerous reporting requirements — demands that can take energy away from the work at hand.

“I’m hoping this wonderful gift that we’re getting from the federal government ... goes in a good direction, because we certainly have our work cut out for ourselves,” he said.

What’s more, news of the grant comes just as a huge transition has been announced at Vashon Youth & Family Services, which will administer the grant. The organization announced Monday that Sam Collins, who’s headed the agency for the past five years, is stepping down, effective Friday. The network’s grant application named Collins, who has 20 years of experience in providing services to families and children, as one of the community resources it planned to turn to during the course of the grant.

Asked about the impact of Collins’ resignation, Winge said Collins had made a significant contribution to the effort but his departure won’t hurt the endeavor.

“Sam has done a lot of very good work in connection with the network and getting this grant, and his contribution will be missed,” he said. “Hopefully, he’ll continue to be a part of the community.”

Others involved with the effort, meanwhile, say they’re deeply encouraged by both news of the grant and strides the Island’s Healthy Community Net-work has already made. Dozens participate in the coalition, including some, like Marcus Berg, who do so not because they have a professional stake in the issue but simply because they care deeply about the health of Vashon’s community.

“It’s a big relief,” Berg, who runs his own home services business, said of the grant. “It’s really important work that we’re doing. But it’s difficult to do on a shoestring.”

Like others on the coalition, he added, he believes the grant and the work it fuels will make a difference on Vashon.

“I believe we’re making progress, and the more cooperation there is, ... the more enthusiasm we’ll find in the community,” he said. “There’s thousands of different ways we’ll change the cultural norms on the Island.”

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