United Way bags $1.29M grant to battle drugs


UNITED WAY OF Addison County’s Jesse Brooks (prevention coordinator), left, Helena Van Voorst (executive director) and Jerrod Rushton (board president) are planning how the organization will use $1.29 million in federal money over the next five years on local programming aimed at steering youths away from marijuana and alcohol use. Independent photo/John Flowers
A big focus of this grant is getting youth to talk to each other about these things. — UWAC Executive Director Helena Van Voorst

ADDISON COUNTY — The United Way of Addison County (UWAC) has won a five-year, $1.29 million federal grant to create more programming to reduce local youths’ use of alcohol and marijuana.

And United Way officials stressed the target population — children in grades 4 through high school — will play a big role in devising and implementing that new programming.

The “Partnership for Success” grant comes through the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. More than 500 organizations throughout the country applied for funding, and UWAC was one of only 110 recipients. The Burlington Partnership for a Healthy Community was the only other Vermont entity to receive one of the prevention grants.

“I’m really excited and proud,” said UWAC Executive Director Helena Van Voorst, who credited the work of Vermont’s Congressional delegation for helping secure the money. “Addison County had been underserved by prevention funding for a long time.”

She said the infusion of money will allow the United Way to continue work started three years ago with a federal Regional Prevention Partnership grant that will expire next June. That $137,000-per-year grant has funded a coordinator — Jesse Brooks — and a variety of programming aimed at preventing Addison County youths (ages 12-25) from using opiates, marijuana and alcohol.

Chief among the partnership’s offerings has been the very successful Heroin Epidemic Learning Program, known as HELP. Introduced in Addison County public schools in 2017, HELP is a voluntary, eight-week offering that includes guest speakers from the medical, recovery and law enforcement communities, as well as some folks who have had direct exposure to the physical and emotional ravages of heroin addiction.

The new grant will build upon the prevention foundation Brooks and her colleagues have built.

Plans call for UWAC to spend $216,795 of the grant in year one; $221,150 in year two; $278,889 in year three; $285,615 in year four; and $287,434 in year five.

Officials are already advertising for a “prevention coordinator” to help oversee year-one programming that will include:

• Creating a “youth prevention advocacy group.” In essence, it will be kids talking to kids about issues that matter to them. A new UWAC intern named Olivia Brooks, currently a sophomore at Vergennes Union High School and Jesse Brooks’ neice, will lead the youth advocacy group.

• Continuing to offer the HELP program in county schools.

• Providing youth leadership training opportunities. Some of that training will take place in Washington, D.C., at the annual Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America summit. Jesse Brooks will bring around 12 local students to the four-day summit next February.

• Developing programs to meet the specific needs of historically underserved student populations, including LGBTQ individuals and military families.

“A big focus of this grant is getting youth to talk to each other about these things,” Van Voorst said. “A huge portion of the work of this federal grant will be training youth and giving them the skills they need to look at data around what their peers are reporting and how to talk to parents, teachers and each other around building healthier habits.”

Trained student advocates and volunteers will discuss prevention strategies with their peers and then work with adults — including educators, human services officials and lawmakers — to turn their best suggestions into reality.

Brooks noted the new grant will pay for programming for youths ages 9 and older.

“It’s a much younger audience, which is nice,” Brooks said.

LEGAL MARIJUANA

She and her colleagues believe it’s even more important to reach younger students with prevention messages given the recent legalization of recreational marijuana in Vermont. The new law allows adults to possess up to one ounce of pot and two mature plants on their property. Some child advocates raise concerns about the potential concentration, problem solving, learning, memory and health impacts associated with marijuana use by minors.

Van Voorst and Brooks pointed to results of the most recent, 2017 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey, as they relate to marijuana and alcohol use. Thirty-three percent of all surveyed Addison County high school students confessed to having consumed alcohol within the 30 days prior to taking the survey. Nearly 25 percent of area high school students admitted to marijuana use during the same timeframe. Seventy-one percent of Vermont ninth-graders who took the survey said they believed it was “wrong” or “very wrong” for someone their age to use marijuana.

“I think the perception of use — more people are out and open about marijuana use because it’s public,” Brooks said. “It’s sending a confusing message to students. We need to be supportive in making sure students are focused, that their hopes and dreams of the future aren’t being hindered and that we’re doing our part.”

Jerrod Rushton, chairman of the UWAC board, shared his thoughts about the grant award.

“We’re so excited for Addison County,” Rushton said. “We’re thrilled these prevention dollars can further the great work that Jesse and UWAC have been doing for several years now.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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