Located in Kansas, the Reno County Communities that Care Coalition encourages youth to take the lead in prevention work! The county is over 1,272 square miles with a population of 64,511, spaced out over approximately 20 “little towns.” The county is one of the largest in Kansas – which can make first responders’ response time slow due to the vast amount of space. Carla Smith, Program Coordinator at Communities that Care, states that the rural nature of the community can make substance abuse more likely with “pasture parties” and a culture acceptance of a father giving their son a beer after a long day on the farm.
Smith shared that the coalition encouraged youth to decide which substance abuse projects they were passionate about and allow them to take the lead. For example, while Kansas has an Indoor Clean Air Act, there was no precedent for vaping or e-cigarettes. One youth was concerned about vaping, especially in places with small children. She did some research and other youth became excited about the project.
“They saw something in their community and took it on. We, as the coalition, were there as encouragement,” said Smith. The youth went to a City Council meeting and passed a city ordinance restricting vaping.
In another instance, youth noticed smoking around small children at the Kansas State Fair, held in the county. The youth became actively involved in advocacy and over the course of a few years, passed a state ordinance that restricted smoking at the State Fair.
The youth involved with the coalition become role models for the next group of youth, and plan to work on marijuana prevention next, including marijuana education and social norms.
“Our CTC Youth Leadership members fill out applications with references and sign drug-free pledges. We have an orientation each year and they are encouraged to attend coalition meetings, Sunday Skill Trainings and weekly meetings at the schools. Of course, we also meet to plan and prepare on various nights and weekends as needed,” said Smith.
Sondra Borth, Director, Reno County Communities that Care stresses the importance of meeting youth where they are. Previously, coalition meetings were held at noon – a time that consequently restricted youth involvement since they were in school. Now, meetings are held at 4 pm, after school and on Sundays, as to not conflict with after-school sports and activities.
“We also spend time with younger students,” said Smith. “We go to the grade schools and do activities and presentations twice a year, and other times if we are invited. The high school youth also put on a Youth Empowerment Summit/YES each year on MLK Day. It includes a keynote speaker, break-out sessions and activities for 5th – 8th graders.”
When asked what advice she would give coalitions facing the same issues, Smith said, “Get youth involved and give them power. They need some guidance, but they need to have some freedom to choose what they are passionate about, and they will stick with it. Give them all the resources to work on the things that motivate them.”