Tell me about your community and the communities that your coalition serves – its population and unique features. When was the coalition formed?
The Pledge for Life Partnership (PfL) serves Kankakee and Iroquois counties in Illinois. While the coalition is made of prevention champions from diverse sectors from both counties, PfL’s Drug-Free Communities grant focuses on Kankakee County and its 113,000 community members who have found a home about 50 miles south of Chicago. Despite many challenges, Kankakee County is making strides to reduce substance abuse prevention by working to become a trauma-informed community and to raise up young prevention champions. For almost 30 years, Life Education Center Universal Prevention Program has focused on healthy lifestyle choices and social and emotional development in their prevention efforts to students throughout Kankakee and Iroquois counties.
What unique issues is your coalition facing?
Because Kankakee County is so close to Chicago, the community experiences spillover of the effects of gangs, drugs, and violence and many of the social problems that plague larger cities. The ease of access to drugs combined with rural areas where there is less enforcement makes it seem like an ideal place for people to come to find trouble. Youth have made the claim in focus groups that “it is easier to get marijuana than water.” The community’s perceptions of social norms where parents seem to think that, because they engaged in underage drinking, “everyone is doing it,” is a cycle that is starting to break. Despite these obstacles, through teaching children at a young age through the Life Education Center program and following them year after year, these little ones are being transformed into prevention champions.
What activity or program is your coalition most proud of and/or what activity would you like us to spotlight?
“The Pledge for Life Partnership is most proud of our Life Education Center programs,” said Coalition Coordinator Kate Reed. “This environmental strategy to reach 10,000 kids every year and then stay consistent to reinforce these messages each year until they graduate high school and beyond has made a significant difference. It is so exciting to see youth start to stand up for the changes they want to see in our community because of the lessons they learned in the LEC. PfL’s Youth Advisory Council is also making a tremendous impact. They have presented at city council meetings, had ordinances changed to help make our community safer and healthier, and have led the charge to increase collaboration with youth across our community and state. Currently, PFL’s youth are collaborating with other youth-led coalitions across Illinois. Because these teenage leaders feel they are more effective when working together, they invited the State’s Attorney’s Youth Advisory Board, the NAACP Youth Council, the Hispanic Partnership Youth Representatives, and even reached up for help from some Olivet Nazarene University social work policy students. This is how real transformation will occur in our communities – when our youth join hands and stand up together for a safer and healthier Kankakee County.”
How did you get there, and what are your outcomes?
“It is all about relationships,” said Reed. “We cannot say that enough. Change takes time. That is why for almost 30 years (even when there wasn’t any grant funding) these educators have dedicated their lives to teaching thousands of kids about healthy lifestyle choices through the Life Education Center programs and diverse environmental strategies. The Life Education Center teachers and prevention champions throughout our community, not only teach these amazing children that they have the option to make healthy choices, but they also do an excellent job of equipping these children to be positive influencers and to lead conversations with their parents, siblings, and peers about why this is important to them.”
What advice would you give to other coalitions that may be addressing some of the same issues?
“It is healthy to need,” said Reed. “People want to be involved in the process that creates the change. Sometimes not having the answer or the necessary resource is healthy, because it means that someone else will be elevated to steward what they have been entrusted with to help impact their community.”
Feel free to add anything else that you think is important for other coalitions to know about your progress, journey etc.
“It is so necessary to start prevention at the youngest age possible,” said Reed. “There is a commonly known Proverb that says ‘Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.’ This is something we cling to in prevention. The LEC reaches 10,000 students every year, which means children in our community have had 300,000 impactful lessons on healthy lifestyle choices reinforced consistently throughout their lives. This is something that Kankakee County could not be more thankful for. While not every child will choose to abstain from substance misuse, it is encouraging to see the youth who become a voice for their peers and the adults who came through the LEC who are passionately working to help their organizations become trauma-informed and to fight substance abuse prevention.”
“We feel hope for our community as we collaborate to reduce substance misuse, to cultivate more prevention champions, and to become a trauma-informed community,” said Reed. “The fact that Kankakee County was once called the ‘worst place to live,’ and is being transformed into a thriving, trauma-informed community, is a testament to the power of prevention.”