Coalitions in Action—Dothan-Houston County Substance Abuse Partnership Empowers Youth Virtually

“Our Partnership was founded in 1996 by the city of Dothan, Alabama and the Houston County Commission,” said the coalition’s Executive Director Judy Guiler. “They saw the need to educate our students on the dangers of drugs, tobacco and alcohol. Our mission is to promote drug and bullying prevention through education within our schools and community.”

“Houston County consists of eight small cities, Dothan being the largest with a population of 68,000,” said Guiler. “Houston County is family oriented, rich in history and supportive of all nonprofits in our community. On a yearly basis, our coalition will see anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 students and meet with our community at various events and commissioner’s meetings. The Partnership was a Drug-Free Communities (DFC) grant recipient 10 years ago. With the help of the city of Dothan, Houston County Commission and the Wiregrass United Way, we have been able to keep our doors open.” 

“This year started off as one of our busiest ever,” said Guiler. “Our Youth Council (YC), a group of 8th - 12th grade students from several schools in Houston County, began recording a monthly TV talk show called Teen Talk. This show is aired on the cable network’s community channels. In addition, the YC participates in a monthly podcast called FTI (For Teens’ Information). The coalition, along with our YC, was scheduled to hold a Medical Marijuana Forum and begin our Prom Promise events the week our state shut down due to COVID-19, and it was like running into a brick wall.”

“After a few weeks, we realized we might be staying at home longer than we anticipated,” said Guiler. “We started hosting office meetings twice a week on Zoom, then added the YC every other Monday. These students were so excited to come to the meetings through Zoom. They were starving for companionship, craving assignments and eager to do almost anything to help our community! Our YC membership started growing as more students heard about what we were doing. Our YC coordinator started the students on the ‘Take Down Tobacco’ program from Tobacco Free Kids. We had one member become the National Tobacco Free Ambassador for Alabama and our YC president conducted a virtual training to the public on ‘The Rise of Vaping.’ To say we are proud of our YC members would be an understatement!”

“When our schools returned to the classrooms in September, we went to them virtually using Zoom,” said Guiler. “It has been a learning curve for us all, but once all the kinks were worked out we have been very productive. Red Ribbon presentations were put on PowerPoint by our marketing manager. By using videos and animation our bullying, vaping and marijuana presentations were captivating. The students, teachers and counselors were so excited. We have used Zoom to share LifeSkills classes for 7th grade students, with plans to attend four schools in January, including training 6th graders.”

“Continuing education with our community has been possible with the help of our local news channels also virtually through Zoom,” said Guiler. “We have been able to reach the morning and afternoon viewers. Social media is larger now than ever. We have a YC media manager that has posted every day since COVID-19 hit. We not only educate people on the dangers of tobacco and drugs, but we also added mental health issues to our education curriculum.”

“COVID-19 has taken so much away from our students, community and businesses, but we have to look at the bright side and look outside of the box to be there for everyone who is in need,” said Guiler. “We have started meeting with our YC members in person. To keep within the CDC guidelines, we have met at churches, restaurants and even at members’ homes. Any space large enough to hold over 20 students and stay six feet apart has been on the table as an option. For those who felt uncomfortable, we always have Zoom meetings available. We even held our YC end of the year banquet as a drive-thru event.”

“If I had any advice to give other coalitions,” said Guiler, “it would be to not let COVID-19 stop you from being there for the students. They are our future.”