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Group gets $625,000 to combat drug abuse

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Community coalition plans to expand, become own nonprofit with federal grant

By Preston Knight -- pknight@nvdaily.com

WOODSTOCK -- The Family Youth Initiative now has the financial backing to make its mark on curbing substance abuse among Shenandoah County's youngest.

The community coalition received a federal drug free communities grant in October, providing it with $125,000 per year for five years for drug and alcohol prevention efforts, according to a news release. Because the initiative is not its own nonprofit, Northwestern Community Services acts as the fiscal agent and assisted with acquiring the grant.

Since the fall, the coalition has begun to lay the groundwork for what it wants to accomplish in the next five years, and beyond -- become its own nonprofit and grow its profile and staff, which has two paid members for the first time.

"I just started recently," program director Shamus Cleveland said. "It surprised me no one has heard of it."

Funding will enable the volunteer initiative to have a much larger impact on the county, even though its roots date to the late 1980s, chairwoman Darlene Wilkins said. Then known as the Commonwealth Alliance for Drug Rehabilitation and Education, it renamed itself in 2002 and broadened its scope to look at all risky behaviors, while continuing to focus on substance abuse, she said.

The coalition works closely with several parts in the community, and as a prerequisite to receiving the grant had to show representation from 12. That includes public schools, the Sheriff's Office, civic groups, mental health agencies and churches.

The initiative has recently hosted education nights for parents and youths at Peter Muhlenberg and North Fork middle schools, recruited pupils for public service announcements through Shentel and local radio stations, and distributed information through church bulletins, Cleveland said. Also, a community resource fair is scheduled for May at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds, a website has been created (www.fyiteens.com) and, among other plans, youths will be sent out into the community with cameras to photograph subtle images that may encourage smoking or drinking, Wilkins said.

"We don't always think about these things," she said.

Wilkins, who is a social worker for the county schools, said alcohol use among youths remains the biggest problem. In a survey the initiative conducted in 2008, about 25 percent of the county's high school juniors admitted to using alcohol in the past month.
Cleveland said the alcohol problem could have an unintended good consequence -- more grants could be obtained to fight it. But that's only the case because the problem persists.

Cleveland said the initial year of the grant funding will be used for planning and getting a better understanding of the community, as well as attempting to grow the coalition's membership. He said there are about 25 members now, and the goal is to double that.
The initiative was one of 169 communities to receive the grant, which is funded by the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, the release states. In Virginia, Wilkins said the coalition was the only new one to be funded, noting that Warren County's coalition is among the ones to already have received money.

"It's huge [for us]," she said. "It's very, very competitive."

Anyone interested in volunteering should contact Cleveland at 335-4305.

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