“Polk County, Florida is located in Central Florida between the metropolitan cities of Tampa and Orlando,” said Coalition Coordinator Samantha Barwig. “Ranking fourth in the state in square miles, Polk County is roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island. Even though the surrounding counties have larger populations, Polk County is predicted to have a population of 1 million by 2020. According to the 2017 U.S. Census, 22.3% of Polk’s population is under the age of 18 and 20.1% are over the age of 65.
“The coalition was formed in 2005 by a group of concerned citizens, community and business leaders to bring about positive change for Polk County,” said Barwig. “The prevention community collaborated to form specific goals and objectives focused on the fundamental belief that a multi-faceted approach to prevention would more strongly benefit our community. Coalition partners agreed that evidence-based prevention education, along with environmental prevention approaches, should be utilized to make the most lasting impression in our community. The group met to outline these goals and objectives in a formal Community Action Plan.
“StandUP Polk is the adult-based component of the coalition,” said Barwig. “The primary focus began with changing attitudes and beliefs about underage drinking and reducing social and retail access to alcohol, but this focus has expanded to include misuse of marijuana and prescription drugs, as well as vaping. Members of StandUP Polk include representatives from community and faith-based organizations, local law enforcement, medical profession, business, schools, parents and youth from all over Polk County.
“UthMpact is the youth-based component of the coalition comprised of teen leaders committed to helping educate and deliver key substance misuse prevention messages to teens by their peers,” said Barwig. “UthMpact members assist the local prevention effort and earn community service hours through volunteerism. This energetic group has developed anti-tobacco, underage drinking, anti-bullying and other social norming campaigns in Polk County high schools. These social norming campaigns have served 8-10 of Polk’s high schools with over 100,000 messages that changed perception regarding drug use by an average of 30%! This is exciting to us because when perception changes, behavior change follows. Since 2008, Polk County’s underage drinking numbers have dropped 12%, tobacco use was dropping until the emergence of vaping (from 92% to 96%) and prescription drug misuse is at only 2%, all according to the Substance Abuse Survey conducted annually by the state of Florida.
“With Polk County encompassing such a large land area, its size presents a substantial challenge when it comes to having enough resources, personnel and funding to address pressing issues involving risky behaviors,” said Barwig. “With a small staff, StandUP Polk must prioritize not only the substances it can educate about, but also the cities that require the most attention. The legalization of medical marijuana has also caused issues in addressing the problem because students often do not perceive marijuana as an illegal substance due to an attitude of normalization within the community.
“Project Prom is an initiative that was begun in 2013 by teen leaders of the UthMpact Coalition to provide formal wear and accessories to those in need who might not otherwise be able to afford the expense of attending prom,” said Barwig. “High school students with a Polk County school ID can sign a Project Prom Pledge to celebrate drug-free and receive their formal wear for free. Each spring, we work with local retail businesses to secure a shopping location at a very reduced cost to use as a Project Prom store for students and families to come to choose their formal wear. With Polk being such a large county, it is always our hope for the Project Prom Store to be in a central location because we realize that it can sometimes take nearly an hour for families to travel there from their homes. UthMpact teens plan a special workday to hang up the dresses and men’s suits, display shoes and accessories, decorate, and make the store a welcoming location for our deserving customers. The Project Prom shopping days, hours, and location are communicated to the public via radio announcements and social media to inform and create awareness. During Shopping Days, the UthMpact members run all operations of the store (with some adult guidance) and take responsibility for greeting customers, assisting with choosing outfits, coordinating dressing room visits, checking customers out and encouraging everyone to sign a Project Prom Pledge. Customers get the full experience when they come to shop during Project Prom, and it is the perfect time for coalition-trained students to communicate with their peers how important it is to be safe and keep their friends safe. Additionally, ALL events are infused with positive social norms messages!
“2020 will be Project Prom’s 8th year and each year it grows in scope with rising numbers of deserving customers served,” said Barwig. “Polk County is a very giving community and this initiative has enjoyed success because of the many generous donations of dresses, gowns, men’s suits, ties, purses, shoes and other accessories received. It is estimated that community members donate between 250-500 formal wear items each year, which helps replenish and maintain an inventory of clothing items from season to season.
“The second successful project that we would like to highlight is the Annual Own the Upside Prevention Summit, which is hosted by StandUP Polk to present a realistic view of important issues facing our community,” said Barwig. “It is an opportunity for community members, law enforcement, school personnel, prevention specialists and many others to come together to gain up-to-date information from respected guest speakers who are experts in current drug trends, internet safety, human trafficking, positive community norms and other topical subject areas. Working together, our community can impact childrens’ lives by supporting and investing in prevention programs and services that reduce access, identify risky behaviors, change community attitudes towards alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use and empower youth to make positive healthy choices. The Annual Prevention Summit has trained an estimated 2,000 citizens over the past ten years and is part of the sustainability plan for the future of the coalition.
“In August of 2017, we received exciting news that the coalition would be receiving the DFC grant for an additional five years,” said Barwig. “This allowed two new coalition staff members to attend a three-week workshop with CADCA trainers to learn the SPF process, after which they were tasked with producing a needs assessment, logic model, evaluation plan and a sustainability plan. We are proud of our staff members who have graduated from the CADCA National Coalition Academy and gained considerable knowledge in coalition procedures. This has strengthened our ability to address challenges in our community and expand successful outreach programs such as Project Prom and the Annual Prevention Summit.
“Our best advice to other coalitions is to hold your community accountable, remain positive, and keep forging forward despite the challenges you may face along the way,” said Barwig. “At times it may seem like you are fighting an uphill battle with no end in sight, but always remember that even if you positively affect only one person, that is making a difference in the community! Sometimes that one person becomes the pivotal partner that you need.
“Another piece of advice is to try to find a workable way around challenges you may face. For example, in our area there are certain sectors (ex: law enforcement) that have a hard time attending our meetings due to timing or distance,” said Barwig. “The solution we have found is to attend their Traffic Safety Team meetings instead. Sometimes you may have to go where they are – it may be a bit out of your way to make things happen, but it’s worth it to cultivate mutually-beneficial partnerships.”