This story begins 34 years ago with a pad of paper, a pencil, and just a rotatory phone. What Netflix’s documentary, Cocaine Cowboys, didn’t tell you was about the community who decided they had seen enough; enough crime, enough pill mills, and enough lives lost and affected by the influx of drugs and violence being brought to the shores of Florida. In Fort Lauderdale, a group of residents decided that it was time to stand up. Built from the guiding principle of a common-sense need for change and non-bias approaches to collaboration, the United Way of Broward Commission on Substance Abuse (the Commission) was started. Why did these community residents come together to become community leaders? It’s because they already were leaders. Legacy members of the Fort Lauderdale community – the movers and shakers if you will – were the impetus behind its creation; they were fed up. It wasn’t going to be easy, though. If you know about the Cocaine Cowboys era, you can imagine the tenacity and bravery these individuals forged ahead with.
“Plain and simple our community reached its tipping point,” said CADCA’s Director, National Coalition Institute & Vice President of Training Operations, Pat Castillo – former coalition leader herself of the Commission (joined the Commission in 1997). “Dave Choate, the original Executive Director and Vice-President of the Commission would tell us the story of the Cocaine Cowboys back in the late 1980s. There was a huge problem happening in South Florida – and there was no place where people could meet to do something about this problem. There was gun violence, open dealing on the streets and the community wanted to be part of the solution. They tried meeting at different locations – courts, the Sheriff’s office and it just didn’t work. It just didn’t feel right. They finally tried the United Way because it was a neutral place.”
It is important to note that this was all happening just at the cusp of the start of the coalition movement. “People didn’t even know what a prevention coalition was! Dave was hired to work there only for a few years, but he stayed for 25! He had opportunities to go elsewhere but he chose not to. His legacy continues to be built by the people who still come together each month and meet to talk about substance use prevention, the well-being of their neighbors and friends and the steps needed to address these issues in their communities. As if he wasn’t already busy enough, Dave, in fact, was also part of the early years of the CADCA’s Coalition Advisory Council. South Florida has always been a major hub and connection point with CADCA because we were very much part of the start of the movement. CADCA’s Chairman and CEO Emeritus, General Dean, and CADCA’s Public Policy Consultant, Sue Thau would be frequent visitors down to our communities. They would come down to see the pulse of the community and visit the pill mills. Many of their stories, visions, and experiences were built in South Florida during these dangerous times.”
“And when it comes to CADCA, you know people from Florida care about something if they’re willing to travel up north in the middle of winter, newly purchased winter coats in hands, to be at Forum!”
“The key ingredients to our work were the people sitting at the table. The strength of our coalition was its non-bias approach,” said Gonzalo Cadima, Deputy Director, Training Operations at CADCA (Joined the Commission in 2001). “There was just a common sense feeling on the need for this movement to happen. Common sense that there was a need to talk, to discuss, to plan and to act. This is the principle of what has kept it going. Working together we can do more, but in a natural way. Because we were there with no personal or political bias, it allowed us to be nimble and work together so that we all complemented each other’s strengths.” Acting with naturality and trust, it becomes consolidated into your DNA. It’s a memory being built, so we know how to tackle any problem. It let us keep our identity while being open to make changes. We even changed our name as a sign of our evolution – it’s now the Commission on Behavioral Health and Drug Prevention. We knew we had to grow alongside the culture of our community. The evolution of a coalition, and keeping future generations involved, is just as important as its origin.”
“The story of our pill mills is still such a vivid memory for me,” said Castillo. “Being at the pill mill epicenter of the United States – not Florida – but the US, meant people would come in from Tennessee, Kentucky, and other states to line up outside these places at 8 in the morning on Oakland Blvd, cash in hand, ready to buy. Those memories are still so clear to me and are in my DNA as I continue my work here with CADCA. Sitting around the table with our coalition was really captivating because we had really strong advocates in our community who were frankly done with just sitting by as their hometown burned. This is why I talk a lot about the magic and synergy that comes from being together around a table as a coalition. This really came from out of nothing. It came from an idea to create change. While they didn’t necessarily have the money, what they did have was heart and the backing of the community. They wanted better and they could all give a piece of themselves. That’s what coalition work really is all about.”
After Pat and Gonzalo transitioned to their new, yet connected, journey in prevention with CADCA, they knew it was always good to go home. And there’s no homecoming like a celebration homecoming. Now, one of the nation’s longest-standing coalitions, Pat and Gonzalo used the power of social media to bring an idea to life. “Our reunion started with a simple outreach on Facebook,” said Cadima. “We don’t do this every year but we thought, wouldn’t it be nice, after so many years, especially after these difficult past few years, if we went back home. This was an opportunity to just be there, be connected, and be happy together. Everyone there is so proud of Pat, and where she is today. It’s that connection to people, where we can learn from each other and take the good out of every part of the last 34 years.”
“Together, with this group of people, we created memories. These memories of coming together, fighting for what’s right, and creating change is a learned behavior. Whenever a new challenge is presented to us, we had the muscle memory to address it. We weren’t restarting from scratch every single time. We knew that when we came back together, those memories would fill in the blanks of the time we were apart.”
“It’s also about relationships,” said Castillo. “You’re sitting around with like-minded people who care about each other, care about the work and care about the community. With those 3 ingredients, anything is possible. And you can tell because why else would they consistently show up at 7:45 in the morning for meetings!”
This story started 34 years ago. With just a pad of paper, a pencil, and a rotary phone. Maybe your story started more recently. Maybe your story started differently. May your story is as unique an origin story as are those of many other coalitions. Share yours with our team and let’s start making new memories together. We want to hear from you!