by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona Senior High School student Sarah Beguin isn’t the star of the video. It starts with a couple of her classmates offering a glass pipe and a bag of weed to a conflicted young man in Lake Park. Beguin appears on screen later, in aerial shots that show a stream of friends affirming the young man’s decision not to smoke marijuana. The video highlights the results of a 2016 survey: that 90 percent of Winona County students do not use marijuana.
“There’s this idea [among students] that everyone around them is getting themselves involved in drugs like marijuana, but in reality there are a lot of people that you can rely on that don’t do that kind of thing,” Beguin said. She and her classmates produced it with the help of a professional film crew. They are one small part of the Winona County Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP). ASAP is the Winona area community’s main effort to prevent drug and alcohol abuse. It’s relatively new, but it’s been making waves.
When ASAP and its partners hosted prescription-drug-take-back days in Winona and Lewiston this year, they collected 150 pounds of medications in one day in Winona in April, 45 pounds in Lewiston, and another 60 pounds in Winona this fall. Not all of the drugs collected by law enforcement to be safely destroyed were narcotics like Oxycodone or Percocet and some were not even prescription drugs, but organizers estimated that around half were narcotics. ““It’s amazing — people would show up with their own boxes full of stuff,” ASAP Coordinator Phil Huerta said of the collections. “We know that we’re still scraping off the tip of the iceberg.”
The organization has spearheaded education campaigns against providing alcohol to minors, helped with events on the dangers of impaired driving at local schools, organized student groups that promote sobriety, and held numerous community talks featuring the recovery stories of Winona County Drug Court graduates.
“I think when it’s members of your own community, people who would be considered just regular plain people, it’s a more personal message,” Beguin said of who delivers anti-drug messages. “Versus, if it’s just a police officer, it seems more scripted and fake, but when it’s people’s real experience and people you see in the halls everyday, it hits home a lot more.”
Winona County has had serious problems with substance abuse, from alcoholism to the rise of synthetic methamphetamine-like drugs in 2011 and the continued prevalence of actual methamphetamine use that has created a rash of bizarre police calls, soaring numbers of serious child endangerment cases, and tragic stories of people who lost their jobs, their families, and their health to addiction.
Chief deputy Jeff Mueller explained why the Winona County Sheriff’s Office was so supportive of ASAP. “We have a lot of efforts in enforcement. Narcotics officers are out doing their thing, but there’s multiple strategies,” he said. If ASAP can help collect prescription drugs and educate parents about warning signs that children might be using, it makes police officers' jobs a lot easier, he said. “I think this is a good one to catch in on the front end rather than stick your finger in the dam,” Mueller said.
ASAP board member Linda King pointed to alcohol-related accidental deaths in Winona in recent years, and said that ASAP was about not accepting those as a forgone conclusion. “Winona is aware. We are educating ourselves. We are helping to educate the community, and we care … We’re not just saying kids will be kids,” King stated.
ASAP has just entered into its third year of a five-year, over-$500,000 federal grant. Huerta said that the organization has a good shot at getting another five-year grant after that, but is already starting to discuss how the organization could be financially sustainable after grant funding ends. That has proven to be a challenge for some of Winona County’s crime prevention and criminal justice reform programs.
One way to do that may be to rely on the partnerships and volunteerism ASAP creates during its grant-funded period to continue the organization’s mission, Huerta said. From government to businesses, churches to schools, “Every sector of the Winona community just about are represented,” King stated. ASAP’s work has been all about getting various partners, from school superintendents to citizen volunteers, involved, and Huerta said that some the momentum ASAP has helped created has spurred other organizations to do things on their own, spontaneously, aimed at curbing drug and alcohol abuse. They have at least three years to figure it out.
“Most people know at least one person around them who has been affected by alcohol or drugs,” Huerta said. Huerta started his career as an addiction counselor before moving into abuse prevention. “I got into this because there are a lot of people that struggle with substance use that aren’t getting help … As I’m learning more about treatment and the prevention world, I really care about prevention and getting ahead of the problem because treatment is so difficult. It takes a long time just to want to make a change and change comes and goes … We should treat the problem, but I really want to get ahead of it and prevent it. And we can. Prevention does work,” he stated.
“I think ASAP is something that’s really good for the community with all of the initiatives, and I’m really glad It’s something I’ve been able to be involved in,” Beguin said.
More information about ASAP is available at www.winonacountyasap.org.