By Lisa Capobianco
Over the past four years, a group of Southington parents have volunteered their time to help promote a safe and drug-free community for all children and families.
Last week, the STEPS coalition celebrated the work of these volunteers, who form The Southington Parents Raising Healthy Teens Committee, also known as the STEPS Parent Committee.
“We have people who dedicate a lot of their time to helping not only with our programs but also taking leadership as parents in other sectors,” said Mihaela Fodor of Wheeler Clinic, who serves as the chair of the committee.
A partnership between the STEPS Coalition and Wheeler Clinic in Plainville, Southington Raising Healthy Teens focuses on three media campaigns throughout the school year: reducing underage drinking, creating awareness of the Connecticut Social Host Law, and promoting the use of the Permanent Medication Drop Box in town.
Through billboards, radio messages, stickers and posters, the committee has worked together to raise awareness about underage drinking, which Fodor calls the most important part of the campaign. Parent representatives of the committee have also made presentations at private homes, school open houses, school fairs, PTO meetings and town events. Currently, a billboard has been displayed in town promoting the “Prom Promise Campaign.” The campaign encourages senior and juniors at Southington High to sign a promise that they will not drink, and parents agree that they will not host parties that allow underage drinking.
“They’re one piece of the community wheel,” said STEPS Coordinator Kelly Leppard, adding the parent volunteers of the committee have developed creative ways to spread the messages of each campaign.
“The most important is the underage drinking—we try hard to reduce underage drinking in Southington,” said Fodor. “We believe that underage drinking is a problem everywhere you turn.”
This year, the overall theme for the media campaigns is “Parents You Matter.” Fodor said change would happen without the support and involvement of parents, since they may have an influence on the decisions that today’s youth make.
“If they do not support us, change is not going to happen,” said Fodor. “The change they make at home will impact the entire community—all kids are our own kids.”
During the “Parent Engagement and Recognition Event,” STEPS recognized the year-round accomplishments of the committee while noting the importance of parents taking on a leadership role. There are at least eight to 10 parents who have committed their time to help with different projects. One parent who received recognition was Heather Bartley, who won the STEPS Parent Leader of the Year Award.
“They are a very strong group of volunteers,” Fodor said during the event. “The more we work together, the stronger we can become.”
During the event, other groups from town supported parent involvement, including the Family Resource Center, the Southington Drug Task Force, United Way of Southington, My Bottom Line, Southington Youth Services. These groups, which have worked closely with families, set up information tables so parents could learn more about getting involved.
James Spallone, the Connecticut deputy secretary of the state, gave a keynote address on civic engagement and parent leadership. Dawn Homer-Bouthiette, the director of parent engagement and family policy of the Connecticut Commission on Children, also reached out to families about the importance of being leaders for local youth. Formed in 1985, the commission has brought together different levels of government, the private sector, nonprofit agencies and philanthropy to advocate public policies that benefit children.
“We share your passion, but we also share your challenge, and that’s the challenge of getting more parents involved,” said Bouthiette during the event, adding Connecticut remains on the cutting-edge with the concept of parent leadership training. “Kids need a voice at the capitol…they also need a voice here at the local level.”
Fodor said over the past few years, the committee has accomplished success with addressing the issue of underage drinking in Southington. Current data show an increase in parental awareness of issues linked to underage drinking and a decrease in underage use of alcohol, reductions in other risk behaviors and increases in positive youth development assets.
Looking ahead to future accomplishments of the STEPS Parent Committee, Fodor said there will be more awareness about the Permanent Medication Drop Box, which is located at the Southington Police station and is open 24 hours, seven days a week.
Both Leppard and Fodor said that although they hope to continue educating the community about disposing medications properly and keeping them out of the hands of children, they also want to raise more awareness about the harmful consequences of drug abuse.
“Now it is going to [focus on] why [the medication drop box] is so important,” said Leppard, adding the second part of the Medication Drop Box campaign may include a new billboard or public service announcement.
“We want to monitor it, and… create a program [for] more awareness about why we have it,” said Fodor, adding the next piece of the Medication Drop Box campaign will focus on the harmful consequences of prescription drugs for youth. “This is a big undertaking because prescription meds are a problem in youth, they sometimes take these medications to get high…this is the gateway to heavy duty drugs sometimes, so it’s very important to have a safe place for people to come drop the medication.”
Other individuals involved in STEPS received recognition during the celebration, including several students of the Youth Council who successfully proposed a new town ordinance that placed more restrictions on the sale of drug paraphernalia in convenience stores and advertisements of alcoholic events. The recipients, Trevor Rogers, Justine Griffin and Sarah Lamb, all received the STEPS Youth Leader of the Year Award. Kristen Guida, who serves on the Executive Committee of the STEPS Advisory Board and Dick Fortunato, who serves as a media sector of the Advisory Board, both received the Community Recognition Award.
“I have been inspired by the people I met and worked with, and really mostly, by the young people,” Fortunato said during the event. “What these kids bring, if you just reach out and try to help them is amazing.”
The Southington Raising Healthy Teens initiative is funded by the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services in collaboration with STEPS, which is funded by a Drug Free Communities
grant from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) in partnership with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).