Anti-drug coalition is closer to reality
By COLLEEN JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
Just over a month ago, the idea of an anti-drug abuse coalition was merely a vision floating around in the heads of several health and school officials in Citrus County.
But the coalition is swiftly becoming a reality, thanks to a $10,000 grant and a dedicated group of local agencies including Marion-Citrus Mental Health, the Sheriff's Office, Citrus schools and the Shared Services Alliance.
That means the county could soon be eligible for thousands of grant dollars previously out of reach.
Tuesday morning, representatives from more than a dozen private and public agencies gathered at the school District Services Center to begin the formal process of organizing a substance abuse coalition.
They acknowledged such a step was necessary to deal with the county's emerging drug abuse situation and to prevent it from getting worse as the area continues to grow. Though no official mission has been set, the tentative goal is to prevent and reduce drug abuse among youth.
Illegal and prescription drugs, alcohol and tobacco use all meet the criteria.
"I think this is great," said Assistant State Attorney Jeffery Smith, who handles the county's juvenile cases. "If we can turn a 10- or 11-year-old kid around, we've scored a major victory."
Local agencies need money to do that, said Mary Lee Cubbison, Citrus director for Marion-Citrus Mental Health. But even though her agency has served those with mental health and substance abuse issues since the 1970s, it often was unable to get many prevention and intervention grant dollars on its own.
That's because coalitions are the big winners of grants these days, she said. When Cubbison realized the county lost out on significant money because it lacked a coalition, she took action to fill the gap.
She secured $10,000 to develop the coalition under a grant administered by the Department of Children and Families through Florida State University. The group initially will come under the umbrella of the Shared Services Alliance, with the school system serving as fiscal agent.
The grant money will pay for promotional materials and a professional facilitator to moderate the organizational meetings.
Eventually, the coalition likely will become a nonprofit organization that obtains grants to funnel to various anti-drug programs throughout the county.
"It really makes sense to get everyone to the table," Cubbison said. "It's all just happened so fast. Everybody was just ready for this."
Dawna D. Boley, the school system's Safe and Drug Free Schools coordinator, was particularly ready. She learned at a workshop last year that Citrus ranked among the state's counties without an anti-drug coalition, and she has data that shows why one was needed.
According to the 2002 Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey -- which was given to 445 Citrus students in grades six through 12 in spring 2002 -- alcohol was the most commonly used drug. Thirty percent of the students surveyed had consumed alcohol within the past 30 days.
Eleven percent of students reported they had recently smoked cigarettes, and almost 13 percent had used marijuana. Only about 2 percent reported using ecstasy, a drug common at rave parties.
The numbers aren't overwhelming yet, but school officials want to nip the problems before they expand. Already there are prevention programs in place at schools, Boley said. But a countywide coalition would help bring in dollars for programs outside the classroom.
After-school programs and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Citrus County could benefit, she said.
The schools "have a captive audience," Boley said. "We need to work together to fix (substance abuse)."
Others echoed her enthusiasm. This is just the beginning of their efforts to rid the county of drug and alcohol abuse, they said, but the efforts mark a significant milestone.
"It's such a good stepping stone for us to get training, bring all the right people to the table and to become a full coalition," said Danielle Damato, facilitator for the Shared Services Alliance. "It's probably going to be key, especially with youth."
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