August 11, 2016

Coalitions in Action: New York Coalition Has Town Hall Meetings Down to a Science

When it rains in New York, it pours. At least that’s what the South Orangetown Community Awareness of Substance Abuse (SOCASA) coalition has experienced with its Rx and heroin epidemic.

Co-Executive Directors Victoria Shaw and Susan Maher and their coalition had already been working on implementing strategies to reduce alcohol, tobacco and other drug abuse for years, but they knew they had to not only raise awareness of the opioid issue, but engage with their community to address what they called “The Perfect Storm.”

The coalition had the scientific data to share and inform the public. Thousands of New Yorkers are dying each year due to the disease of addiction. In 2014, 2,028 New Yorkers died of a drug overdose. More than 30 percent of these fatal overdoses were in New York City; nearly one in five happened on Long Island. In Rockland County, where SOCASA serves, the number of 18- to 24-year-old addicts who were hooked on opiates and were admitted for some form of rehabilitation rose by more than 100 admissions from 2007 to 2012, or just shy of 300 percent.

To address the root causes of the epidemic, the coalition planned and implemented several town hall meetings that addressed both the prescription drug and heroin epidemic in their area. And they developed a template for successful town hall meetings. They, literally, started with a template.

Before each town hall event, the team create vivid and informative newsletters about the topic and coordinating signage. These signs draw people in, en masse. Each event has averaged 400-500 people.

They have a DFC support and a mentoring grant, and other coalitions that are starting out can use SOCASA’s marketing material templates to customize for their own events.

The coalition also created a local commercial that can be customized and aired.

During the past 18 months, the coalition has held four town hall meetings using this recipe for success. Shaw and Maher say the signage certainly grabs peoples’ attention, but it is the venue choice that makes the strategy click.

“Instead of holding these at the high schools, we decided to hold them at local hotel meeting spaces,” Shaw said. “People prefer to go to a function at a nice place and it makes it more special, we can have a conversation over coffee and tea.”

Maher agreed, “If we take the town hall meeting outside of the classroom, we also found that it reduces stigma for parents. Our venues are stigma-free.”

The team invites 20-25 vendors from the prevention, treatment and healthcare sectors to exhibit in the perimeter of the town hall meeting room. That has also proven to be a bonus for town hall attendees, like a resource fair and town hall rolled up into one, they said.

Each town hall meeting panel is a little different, but the coalition tries to have the District Attorney or Assistant District Attorney describe for the audience the local drug trends and conditions. A parent who has a child with a substance use disorder then speaks. A young person in recovery usually tells their story. Shaw and Maher give a brief message. The speakers take the mic for about 45 minutes. Then, the coalition invites attendees for at least an hour of questions and answers.

“We want to make our Q and A extensive because people learn more when they can ask questions,” Shaw said.

After each town hall meeting, the coalition collects surveys to see what attendees want to hear about at the next event. They try to highlight all 12 sectors in their town hall planning, as well. Their next topic could be around anxiety and depression. The team is still exploring that and how to capitalize on each of their professional backgrounds. Shaw has worked in mental health for 30 years and Maher is a registered nurse and school district administrator.

The coalition is in its seventh year of a Drug-Free Communities support grant and also receives DFC grant funds to train and mentor younger coalitions such as a new group of “PEERS,” Prevention Education for East Ramapo Coalition.

SOCASA was established in 2000 under its parent company WELLCORE.

COMING SOON: CADCA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse have interviewed coalition leaders who are struggling with heroin use in their communities. Our heroin prevention online course will debut soon on For now, check out CADCA’s online course “Medicine Safety: Drug Disposal and Storage.”



CADCA’s partner Faces and Voices of Recovery designed a How to Organize a Town Hall Meeting planning guide.

Read about more amazing coalitions in CADCA’s 2015 Annual Report.

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