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Experts discuss afterschool's role in opioid abuse prevention

By Arielle Kahn

Opioid addiction plagues our country, deeply impacting adults and children alike. We at the Afterschool Alliance believe that afterschool has a huge part to play in mitigating this crisis through preventative measures.

On Wednesday, February 27, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) hosted a briefing on Capitol Hill to discuss youth opioid prevention. The briefing was co-sponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Shelly Moore Capito (R-W.V.), representing two of the states most impacted by the epidemic.

Sen. Capito gave opening remarks, emphasizing the need for an “all-hands-on-deck approach” to the opioid problem. Earlier that day, she, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), had introduced legislation called the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) 2.0. The bipartisan legislation would increase funding authorization levels for CARA programs created in 2016 as well as add new efforts to combat the opioid epidemic.

Additionally, Sen. Capito introduced and highlighted the preventative work going on in afterschool programs in her home state of West Virginia.

A model solution to the opioid crisis

One such program is the Boys & Girls Club of the Eastern Panhandle in Martinsburg, W.V. Stacey Rohn, CEO of the program, was the first panelist and spoke about the work that needed to be done in a county in which 1 in 4 kids live in poverty. Through local partnerships and a commitment to a holistic approach to nurturing strong families, this Boys & Girls Club has been able to charter new paths for these children. Stacey spoke of three big partnerships with the Club: college and community mentors, the county school system (many teachers donate their time and resources to the afterschool program), and the Martinsburg Police Department. The partnership with the police department has been especially impactful.

Chief Maury Richards of the Martinbsurg Police Department followed Stacey to delve deeper into The Martinsburg Initiative (TMI). The Initiative is an innovative and holistic police-school-community partnership started by the Martinsburg Police Department, Berkeley County Schools, Sheperd Univeristy, and the Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program. The Hill recently described TMI as a “model solution to the national opioid crisis.”

Finding they could not arrest their way out of the opioid problem, Martinsburg police took a science-based and community-oriented prevention approach. TMI incorporates knowledge of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES), recognizing that children with more ACES are more likely to engage in substance abuse. Now, officers go into schools to screen at-risk students and connect them with the resources they need, continuing this supportive process for years after.

Through a CDC grant, they have been able to take the initiative city-wide and into elementary and intermediate schools. Tom Carr, the executive director of Washington/Baltimore HIDTA, explained how the money from the CDC has funded 13 separate incubator projects. He gave some insight into the most effective programs. “The earlier you can start the better; if you wait until middle school or high school, it is probably too late to influence behavior.”

Carr emphasized that programs should be integrated in school curricula, but families must be educated as well, and highlighted the use of social media for this purpose. In response to “Who should be involved?” he replied, “Everyone – federal, state, and local agencies, corporate America, communities, families, and nonprofits.”

Where great futures start

Norm Bouthilette, the CEO of Boys & Girls Club of Greater Nashua, N.H. echoed many of the points made by previous panelists and highlighted again the importance of afterschool in the opioid prevention effort. “Afterschool programs are places for kids to feel safe and connected; it is where great futures start.”

Norm explained his vision for his program to make sure every kid demonstrates strong civic involvement, lives a healthy lifestyle, and graduates on time and with a plan for the future. A program called Positive Action has been rolled out in several schools in his area to discuss content like violence, bullying, and drug prevention. He also underscored the value of mentoring.

Chief Robert Cormier of the Tilton Police Department in N.H. said he had never seen anything quite like this opioid crisis. Like Chief Richards, he said that his department had the realization that enforcement alone would never solve the problem. Instead, school resource officers do presentations for the students and work directly with them on drug prevention courses. In addition to talking about drug prevention, officers can connect with kids about making good life decisions.

Across the county, “prevention works”

Elizabeth Fowlkes, the senior vice president of Youth Development at BGCA, closed the briefing by citing specific new strategies that Boys & Girls Clubs around the country will be using, called “Prevention Works.”

Drug awareness and education is not enough. We need young people to build skills and resilience to avoid the use and misuse of drugs. These skills, sometimes called “social-emotional skills” or “character development,” include emotional regulation, self-awareness, and responsible decision-making. In afterschool programs children can build skills and practice failure with an adult mentor there to support them. This work should be incorporated in classrooms, labs, art rooms, music rooms, gyms, and just about anywhere.

Norm Bouthilette observed, “Children make up 25 percent of our population but 100 percent of our future.” Let’s start investing in them.