“Dorchester County, nicknamed ‘The Heart of the Chesapeake’ due to the uniquely shaped heart of its border, is nestled in Chesapeake Country,” said Coalition Advisor Charlene Jones. “It is home of the esteemed Harriet Tubman, blue shell crabs, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Nause Waiwash Native American Festival, IRONMAN Maryland, miles of agriculture, serene waterways, and historic towns. Surrounded by water, Dorchester County is 660 square miles with over 1,700 miles of shoreline. About 40% of the county is comprised of wetlands. The county has sixteen zip codes with a total population of 32,618 people, but only nine municipalities. Due to the county’s rural geographic features, there are communities that travel up to 45 minutes to reach the county seat of Cambridge, which has a population of 12,285 people and is where the majority of resources are located. Despite being rich in history and heritage, Dorchester County has been faced with significant socioeconomic challenges and poor health outcomes. In 2018, the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps reported that Dorchester County ranked 22 out of 24 Maryland jurisdictions in health factors. Approximately 53.6% of children in Dorchester are living 200% below the poverty level.
“In 2009, Partnership for a Drug Free Dorchester emerged out of three existing coalitions to address underage substance misuse,” said Jones. “Like other communities, Dorchester is faced with underage binge drinking, marijuana, tobacco and now vaping use. Our strategies are designed to address our most prevalent risk and protective factors – neighborhood attachment, school bonding, family engagement and prosocial activities – to contribute to favorable behaviors. To that end, we are most proud of our Youth Action Council (YAC). YAC is made up of middle and high school youth in Dorchester County that work together to prevent underage substance misuse. The Council was created in 2009 and has evolved through the years. Among other training opportunities, YAC members have attended CADCA’s National Youth Leadership Initiative Key Essentials and Advanced Training to become effective change agents, creating their own logic models and action plans.
“YAC provides interactive presentations to youth via organizations, afterschool programs, school assemblies, summer camps and more,” said Jones. “They facilitate recreational activities in various communities throughout the year, promoting healthy drug-free lifestyles, prosocial involvement and family engagement.”
“As a veteran member of YAC, the skills I gained prepared me to volunteer as a youth advisor and for leadership roles and opportunities I have received at college,” said former YAC member Andre Hampton. “YAC’s outreach activities include table set-ups at events such as football and basketball games, health fairs, back-to-school and open houses, school concerts and other community events. They facilitated Epic Play Days for middle and high school youth, bringing back school-yard games.”
“Most importantly, YAC developed their own media campaign, titled ‘I’d Rather,’” said Jones. “It simply showcases how youth would rather do something positive, like read, play sports or go fishing, than engage in unhealthy behaviors. The campaign consists of two PSAs, posters, incentives, post cards, t-shirts, banners and more, and has been ongoing since 2012. It has aired with Comcast Cable (on networks such as BET, ESPN, BRAVO, OWN, and FX), four radio stations, local television, and in a local movie theater. The newly designed logo for the campaign debuted in September 2019 and was well received by youth in the community.”
“Our previous members came up with the ‘I’d Rather’ idea because they wanted to give youth something positive to think about instead of the ‘don’ts’ that we always hear from adults,” said YAC member Jaden Jones.
“Dorchester County Health Department offers adult support, such as transportation and networking opportunities, to contribute to YAC’s growth,” said Charlene Jones. “However, YAC is youth-led, which is the contributing factor to its ten years of success. They are the voice of their community. This responsibility allows them to take ownership of the work they do. The youth developed their application, policy, and pledge. They recruit new participants and facilitate the interview process with potential members and their parents. Members volunteer 50-100 hours a year and receive community service hours, a school requirement, for their time. The Council has seen an increase in the number of youth that attend their events and engage in their campaign, as well as the number of requests to participate/present within the community. To date, previous members are now attending college or have either graduated from college or joined the workforce, including some managerial positions.”
“In addition to ensuring youth are empowered to use their creativity and voice, we strongly encourage coalitions to focus and build on the positive for impactful change,” said Angela Grove, Health Education Program Manager and former YAC Advisor at Dorchester County Health Department. “So often we encounter scare tactics as prevention, but we know the power of building relationships and growing positive norms.”