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Jefferson County is joining 49 other communities across Colorado to use marijuana tax dollars to prevent substance abuse among its youth, while reducing violence and improving mental health.
“Each of these communities is working to reduce underlying risk factors and increase known protective factors with the goal of preventing problems before they ever start,” said Pamela Gould, the Communities That Care coordinator for Jefferson County.
In June 2016, Jefferson County Public Health (JCPH) received a grant to implement these prevention efforts, called Communities That Care. The eventual goal of Communities That Care is to create policies, systems and programs that reach children and families, and help youth grow into productive adults.
Part of the program includes choosing 21 youth, ranging in age from 14 to 18, to intern as youth researchers to gather data on what they are experiencing in the Jeffco community.
Frankie Briganti, a junior at Wheat Ridge High School, wants to pursue a health-related career, she said, so the youth researcher internship was a way for her to gain exposure to the public health field.
“It’s nice because I’m actually doing something to help people my age,” Briganti said. She added people her age “all go through some of the same things and (some) who are struggling.”
The Communities That Care process is proven to work, Gould said.
For example, she added, in communities across the country that have already implemented its methods, youth are less likely to engage in risk behaviors. Randomized controlled trials in these communities found that youth were 37 percent less likely to binge drink, 25 percent less likely to engage in crime and 32 percent more likely to have abstained from the use of any illegal drug, Gould said.
Communities That Care “helps to protect our kids from the very beginning,” said District Attorney Pete Weir, “before they have the chance to use a substance, before they encounter peer pressure and long before they ever end up in my courtroom.”
Research from the University of Washington indicates that all youths can face certain risk factors that increase the likelihood of substance misuse, Gould said. Risk factors include the availability of substances, having low attachment to their community or neighborhood, a lack of commitment to school, academic failure, favorable attitudes toward misuse among family or friends or having a sense that there is low risk of substance use causing problems, Gould said.
Opportunities for youth to be involved in their community, school or family in ways that include skill-building and recognition for successes, has been shown to reduce the prevalence of youth problems in their community, Gould said.
“These are called protective factors,” she said, “and they’re how we can combat risk factors.”
The Communities That Care grant is funded by the marijuana tax cash fund, managed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). In 2016-17, CDPHE received about $7,125,000, from the marijuana tax money, and received about $9,000,000 in 2017-18. The Jeffco grant will be awarded for five years, beginning in 2016. By 2021, the county is projected to receive more than $1 million in grant money.
Supplemental funding for the local Communities That Care initiative comes to Jeffco from the 2017 Drug-Free Communities Support Program grant — a grant from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, for $125,000, with potential renewable funding up to $725,000.
Making a difference
“The whole point is to raise young people who are healthy, safe and drug free,” said Dr. Mark Johnson, the executive director of JCPH. “With this funding, we have the potential to make a real difference.”
The Communities That Care model helps local communities assess specific risks and protective factors among the youth in their communities. Jeffco is focusing on Lakewood, Edgewater and Wheat Ridge because these communities and the schools within them have expressed a readiness to make significant changes to support their youth, Gould said.
“Across Colorado, we’re seeing concerning rates of binge drinking, drug use and depression among youth and we want to make sure we’re addressing these issues in Jefferson County,” Johnson said. “Communities That Care allows us to do that in a way that is customized for our community.”
JCPH began the process of implementing Communities That Care in late summer 2017 by organizing two groups of stakeholders. One group consists of Jeffco’s key leaders — elected, appointed, high-ranking and recognizable community members. The second group is a community board made up of representatives from a variety of sectors, including education, mental health, business, youth-serving organizations, law enforcement, volunteer groups, state and local government, health care, substance misuse organizations, parents, youth and more.
The 21 students researchers are collecting information about what they and their peers see as underlying challenges facing youth in the community. The youth will present their findings to the board and key leaders in April.
“Being an athlete, I know a bunch of kids, including some who dabble in alcohol and drugs,” said Gabe Dinette, a senior at Lakewood High School. “I wanted to get involved to help the community as a whole. That way, kids can see someone their age doing good, and they can reverse the trend as they get older.”
Valeria Montes, a freshman at Jefferson Jr./Sr. High School, agrees that participating in Communities That Care has been a positive learning experience because it has helped her become aware of the problems her generation faces, she said.
“To have youth in our community excited to make change, and to know there’s a real possibility they’ll see it happen, that’s why we all do this,” Gould said. “We can make Jefferson County a thriving, healthy and safe community for our youth.”
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