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Time runs low on youth coalition

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By Brandon Mattingly

For one of Washington County’s most successful youth programs time and funding are wearing thin. In fact, when the Washington County Heartland Youth Coalition host their BLAST (Better Lives and Safer Towns) event on Sept. 26, it will be the last in a long line of programs hosted by the coalition under the current funding situation.

The coalition has operated on a 10-year Drug-Free Communities grant, which was provided by SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration). As time runs out on funding, members of the House of Hope—the entity behind the coalition—is continuing to search for other sources of financial help.

“Over the last 10 years we have operated under the funding from that grant,” said Sheila Hourigan, board chair of the House of Hope. “The 10-year grant is up and the money has been spent. The coalition has to go back to the community as a community-sustained program. We don’t want to lose all the wonderful work that has been done the last 10 years.”

That work includes Red Ribbon week, the Kick Butts anti-smoking campaign, town hall meetings, road blocks to discourage underage drinking and the “I Won’t Be the One” anti-drug campaign. Those programs and more are in danger of being forced out once the grant comes to its conclusion at the end of this month.

Now, the Washington County community is being asked to step up and help keep the coalition moving in the right direction.

“We’re still here and the programs are still here. We’re going to need funding to sustain what we’ve provided for 10 years. Is the community ready to step up and help sustain this and continue these prevention programs that are making a difference in our children’s lives?” Hourigan asked.

Time will tell if the coalition will be able to continue providing the same services they have for the last decade, but the main concern of those with the House of Hope is the possibility of losing the RISE youth group, which has taken the initiative to expand the drug-free campaign in recent years. RISE coordinators Wilma Sorrell and Issac Frye have been working on a salary that was covered by the grant, so the future of the group is in question.

“Part of the grant money was to pay (Sorrell’s) salary, and she went over and above what was expected,” Hourigan said. “She’s met with them every other week, done projects, gone to leadership symposiums and taken them on field trips where they met with other coalitions.”

Hourigan also said the need for the coalition is being felt now as much as ever, because the process of drug prevention needs to start at the earliest stages.

“We’re finding that these kids are being exposed to things younger and younger, so we’re having to come up with things where we can reach them before there’s a problem,” she said. “We can’t just wait to do things at the high school or middle school level. We need to reach these children in elementary school.”

Members of the House of Hope said they want nothing more than to continue the program, but said that they’re unable to interact with students because of their primary jobs. Replacing what Sorrell and Frye have been able to provide is one of their greatest concerns.

The impact the coalition has had in recent years has been felt not just in Washington County, but by other areas that are looking for an ideal program to emulate.

“They have facilitated things outside of this district,” said Dana Kelty, House of Hope board vice chair. “If you ask anybody in a coalition, they’ll say that Washington County RISE youth is the best and that’s who you want to model.”

The initiative taken by the youth who are involved with the program has been one of the most pleasing surprises by members of the House of Hope, and there’s plenty of motivation on their end to keep the youth coalition alive.

Cathy Carrico, House of Hope treasurer, said one student recently asked her, “Where do we start to reach out to the public to get the word out about what we’re trying to do?”

Carrico said increasing parental involvement and awareness of the coalition is a major first step. Hourigan added that many of the students who are involved are doing so despite not having full support of their peers.

“Some of them are having to take a hard stand, even against their friends. They have friends who are drinking, doing drugs or are involved in cyber-bullying and that kind of stuff,” Hourigan said. “They’re sticking together as a group and supporting each other. There’s not too many groups that do that anymore.”

One of the coalition’s biggest events is the upcoming BLAST event. The House of Hope has partnered with the Washington County Extension Office for the annual all-day event for sixth-graders. Drug and alcohol prevention, anti-bullying and social media use will be among the seven sessions discussed next week.

“That’s just an example of something, that if the community doesn’t step up to help with, that will be one of many programs that the coalition won’t be able to sustain,” Kelty said.

Hourigan concluded by saying that the community should consider its future when deciding whether to provide a helping hand to keep the youth coalition and the RISE program intact.

“(The youth) are the ones who are going to be running Washington County in 10 years. Do we want them to be prepared? Yes we do,”

Hourigan said. “People who are not directly involved with this don’t understand that what we’re building is leaders for tomorrow, and we don’t want to lose that.”

To find out more about the youth coalition and how to help, contact the House of Hope at (859) 336-0140.