by CHRIS ROGERS
Communities across Winona County just got a big boost in their efforts to combat youth substance abuse. The Winona County Alliance for Substance Prevention (ASAP) got its start in 2012, as Winona area parents, community leaders, criminal justice officials, and health care professionals grappled for ways to deal with a wave of synthetic drug abuse among young people across the county. The group spent its first couple years rallying members and being denied for grants. Now it has won big. This year, ASAP received the first part of a $530,000, five-year federal grant and organizers will soon be launching a series of programs aimed at giving parents, teachers, and local communities the tools to combat youth alcohol and drug abuse.
"It is a big grant," acknowledged Live Well Winona Community Wellness Director Janneke Sobeck, who spends part of her time overseeing ASAP. Winona County has won numerous federal grants for various criminal justice prevention programs, but those grants are usually for tens of thousands of dollars and a couple years at a time, after which point funding for the programs may disappear. This big, long grant gives ASAP the time to set up a program that can make a difference in the long-term, Sobeck said. "We're very excited," she added.
Until 2016, ASAP was run by volunteers with very busy lives. The grant will help pay for various programs ASAP is planning and its newly hired full-time coordinator, Phil Huerta.
People do not always like to talk about it, but youth substance abuse is a problem in our area, Sobeck said. "Most people have at least one person in their daily lives that is affected by substance abuse," she stated.
This year, ASAP plans to launch a Parents Who Host campaign to encourage area parents not to host parties with alcohol for teens and lobby local communities to adopt social host ordinances that include penalties for parents who host teen drinking parties. Many Winona County cities have already adopted such ordinances. Lewiston does not have one, but city leaders have expressed interest, Sobeck said.
ASAP also plans to launch a campaign at local schools about the dangers of prescription drugs and to organize prescription drug take-back events.
Huerta and Sobeck will help organize trainings for teachers and parents about warning signs of drug abuse. They will offer programs to give schools toolkits for talking about substance abuse in wellness classes, they will offer trainings for teachers and parents on how to talk to children about substance abuse, and programs for youth about how to say "no."
The Winona County Sheriff's Office (WCSO) currently conducts DARE programs at Lewiston-Altura Schools and occasional trainings for teachers across the county, but chief deputy Chris Cichosz welcomed ASAP's support. Working to prevent people from abusing drugs or to help people with abuse problems helps the entire community and it is a problem that needs to be attacked from many angles, Cichosz said. "There's no magic pill that's going to take care of it," he stated.
Is substance abuse an intractable problem? Sobeck said that there are programs that have been proven to work elsewhere and ASAP is committed to bringing that success to the Winona area. "We're bound and determined to make it work here," she stated.
Lewiston-Altura School District Superintendent Jeff Apse also supported ASAP. Substance abuse prevention sometimes comes down to resources, and ASAP will offer a lot of new resources to help, he said."The more you can do to educate people about the dangers of substance abuse you're going to put people in a position, hopefully, to make better life decisions," he stated.
Area residents can learn more about ASAP by visiting www.livewellwinona.org, or by attending an upcoming Wellness Expo, where Huerta will be sharing information about ASAP. That expo is on Saturday, February 27, from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m at the Winona Middle School.