Organizations Come Together to Prevent Substance Abuse

How can residents join forces to combat the high rate of substance abuse in the Northwest Corner of Connecticut? A group of organizations and community members is attempting to delay the first use of alcohol and marijuana among students by utilizing a wealth of policies and programs, ranging from classes and talks to a wellness fair and drug take back events.

As part of an initiative led by the McCall Center for Behavioral Health and supported by Berkshire Taconic’s Northwest Corner Fund and the Foundation for Community Health, the Botvin LifeSkills Training program has been implemented in the Region One School District to provide students with the confidence and knowledge to handle difficult situations. The classes are taught by Christina Khounsombath and Josh Licursi, who are prevention facilitators at McCall Center for Behavioral Health, and school staff members are trained in these techniques.

During a recent visit to North Canaan Elementary School, Khounsombath talked with sixth-graders about the dangers of smoking electronic cigarettes, also known as vaping. Using a poster as a visual aid, she explained that they contain nicotine and some known carcinogens.

But the class focused on more than just drugs and alcohol. Khounsombath gave tips on how to deal with anger, such as counting silently and staying calm. She explained later that the goal is to “implement life skills that typically aren’t taught so we can delay the age of first use, which gives the kids a chance to grow up and make those decisions in regards to substance use. It gives kids more tools in their toolbox.”

Khounsombath is assisted by North Canaan Elementary School Counselor Leila Wood, who emphasized that it is beneficial to have a professional who is familiar with substance abuse speak to the students. She noted that Khounsombath delivers the Botvin classes with passion, which catches their attention.

Wood has been involved with a local coalition of school staff, health and human service providers, and community members called the Northwest Corner Prevention Network since its inception. As part of this initiative, the group organizes community events to raise awareness and educate students and their families about the ways to cope with challenges that often lead to substance abuse.

“It’s important to bring as many voices as you can into the community,” she said. “When a problem does come up, at least students will have the idea that there are agencies out there that can help them.”

One of those agencies is the nonprofit that’s spearheading this entire project: Torrington’s McCall Center, which is focused on recovery, prevention and community. Executive Director Maria Coutant Skinner said this prevention program is truly a community collaboration, and she is impressed by the commitment of everyone involved.

“For many years, it was expected that young people would party in high school. It was considered that was the norm. Now you’ve got this organized group of people using these evidence-based strategies to change that norm,” Skinner said. “This is a really devastating disease. When I look at the efforts, this is the answer. It’s very hopeful. If we’re able to equip kids with these coping skills and build connections, that’s going to be the solution. Prevention is the best investment that I can think of that can turn the tide.”

Events in 2018

March 23: free Narcan training class at Kent Town Hall from 5 to 6 p.m.

April 6: Second Annual Northwest Corner Prevention Network Wellness Fair at Housatonic Valley Regional High School from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m., followed by the HVRHS Talent Show

April 13: Community opioid panel discussion at Housatonic Valley Regional High School, room 133, at 6 p.m. Panelists are John Simoncelli, executive director of Greenwoods Counseling Referrals; Julia H. Scharnberg, grants and program director at Northwest Connecticut Community Foundation; Maria Coutant Skinner, executive director of McCall Center for Behavioral Health; and Brian Ohler, State Representative 64th General Assembly District.

April 28: Drug Take Back event at Kent Town Hall and Troop B in North Canaan from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

May 10: “Dirt,” a presentation on drugs, bullying and choices written and performed by John Morello, at 6:30 p.m. at Housatonic Valley Regional High School

Botvin

Christina Khounsombath, left, explained the dangers of vaping during a Botvin LifeSkills class at North Canaan Elementary School. Photo by Darryl Gangloff