Coalitions in Action— Winona County Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention Seeks Solutions Through Students

Tell me about your community and the communities that your coalition serves – its population and unique features. When was the coalition formed?

The Winona County Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention (ASAP) was formed in 2012 and primarily serves the schools districts in Winona and Lewiston, Minnesota. Winona County is located 2 hours southeast of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota on the Mississippi River, bordering Wisconsin. The region is a beautiful, hilly, bluff terrain in a river valley. Distinct features are the rural/urban divide and the state of Wisconsin just across the river with differing laws. Winona County is mostly rural with a total population of 51,000. The city of Lewiston has a population of 1,000, whereas the city of Winona is more urban with a population of 27,000 and is home to three colleges and universities.  

What unique issues is your coalition facing?

“Like many communities, we are facing the challenges of vaping in schools,” said the coalition’s Program Coordinator Phil Huerta. “17% of Winona County 11th graders reported past-month e-cigarette use in 2016 (equal to the percent reporting marijuana use) and that number has likely increased (Minnesota Student Survey, 2016). 61% of Winona County 9th and 10th graders think vaping is a great or moderate problem at their school (ASAP Listening Sessions, 2019). Many students have voiced their desire to do something about this problem, because other people's vaping use has interfered with their bathroom use and academic performance.”      

What activity or program is your coalition most proud of and/or what activity would you like us to spotlight?

“Our coalition is proud of the ‘Vaping Backpack’ educational materials we put together, and the marketing campaign activities organized by students in the Winona Middle School,” said Huerta. “We developed a backpack display for parents that contains nearly a dozen e-cigarette and other tobacco products that resemble school supplies. The Vaping Backpack has been added to our Hidden in Plain Sight exhibit, and presented to parents and adults to help them recognize these items and learn about the harms associated with them. We are also proud of the middle school students who distributed educational posters, presented facts during morning announcements, and created a short PSA.”

How did you get there, and what are your outcomes?  (Be as specific as possible in terms of strategies that you used)

“Before we selected any interventions, we conducted listening sessions with 130 9th and 10th graders at Winona and Lewiston high schools,” said Huerta. “During that activity we collected data through a short survey card, large and small group discussions, and a post-it note activity. The post-it note activity involved gathering student solutions at the end of the discussion, and following up on them with various student groups. Students and parents agreed that we need to provide information on the harmful effects of vaping. We collaborated with the local Statewide Health Improvement Plan (SHIP) coordinators to create a slide deck of facts to present alongside our Vaping Backpack to over 300 adults in a dozen different organizations. We also partnered with the Winona Middle School Student Council to reach nearly 900 students by hanging 30 posters around school, creating a 30-second PSA for the televised school news report, and reading aloud eight facts during Friday morning announcements through the end of the school year.”    

What advice would you give to other coalitions that may be addressing some of the same issues?

“Learn about the issue by first listening to students,” said Huerta. “Ask the right questions and look at the results with outside help to prioritize issues. We found that students really care about vaping and want to do something about it. Without listening to them, we may default to thinking that there are more problems than solutions. Asking students for solutions through an organized activity revealed a lot to our adult leaders.”