By JESSE BURKHARDT
With a sizable federal grant at stake, a team of area leaders are working to get to the heart of the substance abuse problem in Klickitat County.
Community Mobilization Against Substance Abuse (CMASA), a core group with representatives from school administration, law enforcement, students, parents, health care professionals, church groups, mental health agencies, businesses, government agencies, news media, civic groups, and others, are working on a process that could bring a federal "drug-free communities" grant of $125,000 per year for five years to assist in the local battle against substance abuse.
The grant is made available through the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, but there is a lot of work ahead before the application is ready or the grant is approved.
Part of winning the grant entails determining what the biggest abuse problems are in the local community, according to CMASA Chair Rick George, principal of Henkle Middle School.
"We are using data to identify the two or three substances that are most impactful on youth in our area," George said. "We're reaching out to everyone we can."
The coalition will pinpoint problems and build strategies to combat a variety of issues related to substance abuse.
Barb Klinger, the Klickitat County coordinator for substance abuse and prevention programs, said focus groups are very helpful in getting to the root of the problem.
"We're in the process of conducting community assessments to determine what level of substance abuse problem we have in east county, in west county, and in the whole county," Klinger said. "We will conduct several youth focus groups."
Klinger said recent surveys have indicated that underage drinking remains the biggest problem in the county.
"The highest arrest rates are still for alcohol abuse county-wide, and second is marijuana use," Klinger explained. "One of the big problems that comes up are the number of kids who report riding in a car with someone who was drinking. That happens more in this county than is reported statewide. We will choose the risk areas where we are worse than the state to focus on."
George pointed out that while data and statistics explain a lot, the group is focused primarily on hearing from a wide range of people and their experiences related to substance abuse.
"Data doesn't tell stories. People tell stories," George said.
When kids come from homes where substance abuse is going on, it "messes kids up," George said.
"So many kids I know are impacted because of substances," George explained. "Boy, it's sad. We need to work with our kids to give them hope and help them envision a future, no matter what the situation is. The school is like a little oasis in their lives, and where someone is believing in them. It's sad to put your heart and soul into helping a child get into a space where they are believing in themselves -- and then to see them lose it because they choose substances."
If the group secures the grant, the funds would go to hire individuals who can coordinate community efforts for prevention activities.
"Everybody gets unified over this," George said. "It's not just hang up a poster. We need to hit it from every angle we can."
The group began its efforts in earnest in the spring of 2008.
"That's when we really started getting serious about it," George explained.
Klinger pointed out that the formal application process does not open until January 2010.
"We're going to position ourselves now to be ready to apply," Klinger explained. "I'm really hopeful. I find this community has tremendous resources and people ready to step forward and assist us with the process, and give us data."