When the 24,000 population of Scott County, Indiana, was hit by 200+ cases of HIV, and the 2015 County Health Rankings and Roadmaps ranked it 92nd out of 92 Indiana counties in health outcomes, the whole community rallied. While a multi-faceted approach was identified engaging hundreds of citizens, the youth led the way as community leaders and future adults. Scott County became a part of the Well Connected Community Initiative as one of Indiana’s three pilot communities.
A youth-driven and youth-managed coalition called EMPOWER was founded in March 2018 by three Scott County youth with a desire to improve their community’s prevention work. EMPOWER has now grown to a membership of 40+, ages 12-18, who believe that with the right tools, healthy, safe and drug-free lives can be encouraged. EMPOWER’s mission is to align youth with their community to create a powerful impact through prevention, health improvement and positive relationships. The group is comprised of students from the two Scott County school districts. Representatives attend the local substance abuse coalition monthly meetings of CEASe during the school day, an indication of support. The youth coalition is part of the Scott County Drug Free Communities (DFC) Support Program initiative and holds monthly meetings after school to make it more available to all students.
EMPOWER has represented Scott County’s prevention efforts in front of state and national audiences, such as presentations at the 2nd Annual South Central Opioid Summit in Bloomington, IN; Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA)’s National Leadership Forum in National Harbor, MD, and a Mid-Year Training opportunity in Orlando, FL. It is a powerful mecca for other youth to join this work; for example, an open house and end of year celebration by EMPOWER drew over 43 peers. Further, their social media presence exists on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram connecting youth with youth and youth with adults.
The community has developed a strategic plan for addressing this issue, and the youth are organizing sober socialization events for all. In order to track attendance, the youth are developing a cutting-edge approach to using Bluetooth technology with strategically placed beacons that will track attendance points to be used for prizes, some of which will be donated by the community. Healthy, safe events such as church activities, high school basketball, football, and soccer games, as well as part-time jobs, will be lifted up with youth encouraging other youth to participate.
Another focus of the strategic plan involves educating all ages of the community about the dangers of prescription drug misuse. A series of Community Health Events conducted by a partnership between the Scott County EMS, CEASe and EMPOWER were held with youth coalition members involved in distributing public relations information, participating in health series events and distributing prescription medication lock boxes to Scott County families. These lock boxes were secured through a community grant application written by EMPOWER members.
Youth-adult partnerships are one of the most effective ways to engage both parties in meaningful activities, which is why Scott County youth are recognized as equal partners in all health coalition efforts,” said CEASe and Drug Free Communities Coordinator, Lori Croasdell. “Our EMPOWER youth coalition colleagues are involved in positive, meaningful, respectful relationships with adult collaborators. This practice not only helps us to increase our local youth leadership capacity, it’s building collaborative skills of our adult members as well. Scott County youth-adult partnerships take place as we work together to plan and learn, with both groups sharing equally in the decision-making process. This dynamic is very different from many or our past relationships, in which adults took leadership roles and youth were assigned inferior roles, or when our youth made all the decisions while adults sat back and watched. Instead, our partnerships build on the strengths of each group, and our outcomes have been stronger.”
The youth have also initiated a series of videos promoting a county-wide positive social norms campaign, called “What’s Your Side Effect?” While educating young people on the realities of prescription drug abuse is important, research has shown that traditional fear-based anti-drug messaging is not particularly effective. The “What’s Your Side Effect?” approach is to package information on prescription drugs inside a broader message of hope and inspiration, recognizing that drug abuse often originates with emotional, social and psychological factors, not with a lack of information. By inspiring young people to think about their passions and the effect they are having on their community by pursuing those passions, their focus can be redirected to help promote a lifestyle that will reduce abuse risk factors. See all of the Scott County’s “What’s Your Side Effect?” Videos on the CEASe of Scott County YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFHwSNs9zKp1_Ueqgb8BDOQ/videos
Undergirding these efforts are funds from a series of grants totaling $350,000 that are fueling the entire community outreach, which includes education, training, and promotion. See the positive effects of this work on “Thriving IN Scott County” website (http://thrivinginscottcounty.com/).
County Extension Director Tammy Walker sees this community’s participation in the Well Connected Communities initiative as helping to organize through the development of an action plan, and by providing tools to help the community see its collaborative efforts leveraged.