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Arizona groups try new ways to prevent underage drinking

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- The Sunnyside Neighborhood Association and the Williams Alliance against Drug and Alcohol Abuse are partnering with the Guidance Center to develop community-driven programs to stop teenagers from using alcohol.

A five-year, $275,000 state grant allowed the Guidance Center to hire Jennifer O'Neill as its new prevention grant coordinator. Her job will be to help Sunnyside and Williams select media campaigns, education programs and lobbying efforts aimed at keeping kids between ages 11 and 17 from drinking.

``Some of the data shows that kids in Coconino County started drinking as young as 14,'' O'Neill said. ``(We're) targeting them before they start.''

O'Neill is currently collaborating with the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association and its youth group to develop educational programs and media campaigns for that area. She will spend the next few months helping them choose from a list of programs that have worked for other cities around the nation.

The list includes alcohol compliance checks, which involve law enforcement sending underage kids into stores to see if those establishments are illegally selling alcohol to minors. Other strategies on the list include mandatory registration for anyone who purchases a keg, raising alcohol taxes, lobbying to prevent additional liquor-selling establishments from being licensed in a vulnerable area, and social media campaigns led by teenagers.

``All of these are more environmental, not just targeting individuals with an education plan,'' O'Neill said. ``How can we change the environment our kids are in so that they're less likely to drink alcohol?''

O'Neill plans to use the previously disbanded Williams Alliance against Drug and Alcohol Abuse Association to start similar efforts in Williams. That group decided to regroup specifically for the new grant program. Its first meeting was Monday.

``A lot of people were there talking about ideas of what they see as the problem in the community and what areas they would like to focus on, one being the middle-schoolers,'' O'Neill said. ``They see that the middle-schoolers need some attention.''

The Williams coalition is already looking at ways to provide more activities to keep middle-schoolers busy so they do not start experimenting with alcohol.

Right now, O'Neill's job is to help the Sunnyside and Williams coalitions get organized. In the future, she will provide them with training on how to carry out their media campaigns, lobby for policy changes, and lead education programs for kids and parents. Some of the hot topics will include where teenagers are getting alcohol in those communities, the legal ramifications of underage drinking the negative effects alcohol can have on a developing brain.

``The big thing is (parents) talking to their kids,'' O'Neill said. ``That's a big one to start with and that's pretty simple.''

O'Neill said less than a third of parents talk to their children about drinking.

``This was a gap for us,'' said Guidance Center CEO Jack Callaghan.

The Guidance Center already offers an array of treatment and recovery services for adults and juveniles with alcohol abuse problems. The Guidance Center even started coordinating a community-wide effort called Communities for Closing the Gap a year and a half ago to address chronic alcoholics in Flagstaff.

In 2013, there were more than 960 people enrolled in substance abuse programs at the Guidance Center, including 17 in the Child and Family Services Matrix Substance Abuse Group. Staff at the Guidance Center hope the underage drinking prevention program will reduce the number of people who need those services in the future.

``Most of our primary services at the Guidance Center tend to be reactive in terms of substance abuse. We're dealing with the problems that are already established,'' said Guidance Center Development Director Stephen Riggs. ``The exciting thing about this prevention grant is that it gives us an opportunity to be proactive and to try to get at these issues before they become problems.''

The Guidance Center has already identified kids in Sunnyside and Williams as being at higher risk for underage alcohol use. Callaghan cited several factors, including children who grow up in homes where underage drinking is allowed during celebrations or in families that already have substance abuse problems.

``The focus here is to take all those factors into account, the cultural aspects, the socioeconomic status,'' Callaghan said. ``Underage drinking is an issue for kids who are disadvantaged.''

O'Neill will oversee the new alcohol abuse prevention grant, which was provided by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and comes through the Northern Arizona Regional Behavioral Health Authority.

The funds will pay for her salary and travel, as well as training and resources for implementing new prevention programs. The former Catholic Charities Community Services employee, who has worked closely with Child Protective Services in the past, hopes to help teens, parents, educators and the community at large understand that underage drinking is harmful.

``I worked with families kind of on the other side, on the treatment side, who have already been in a position where they've used drugs and alcohol,'' O'Neill said. ``That affects their kids, too. Sometimes it can be a repeating cycle. Getting to the prevention part of it is really important to me. It's a real passion that I have, being able to help them so they don't have to go through those struggles.''

Callaghan said the involvement of parents and the community as a whole will be essential to the success of the Guidance Center's youth alcohol abuse prevention efforts.

``The Guidance Center and (O'Neill) can be the focal point and make things happen, but, ultimately, it comes down to the families, the brothers, the sisters, the friends, the schools, the whole world that these kids grow up in,'' Callaghan said.

He added that the benefits will ripple throughout the community.

``There are implications of underage drinking, in terms of auto fatalities, teenage pregnancy- I could go on and on,'' Callaghan said. ``From a society perspective, this isn't just about keeping kids from partying when they're freshmen in college. It's way beyond that in terms of making Flagstaff a better place to live.''

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