Coalition plans for youth engagement

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The Monroe County Coalition for Drug-Free Communities has long wanted to include students in its conversations.

Now, with the help of grant funding, the coalition is strategizing how to do just that.

As Kelton Davis, regional superintendent of schools for Monroe and Randolph Counties, previously told the Republic-Times, the Illinois State Board of Education recently announced his office is set to receive multiple years of funding through Community Partnership Grants.

The purpose of these grants is to address social-emotional health concerns that have spurred from the pandemic. As Human Support Services Executive Director Anne Riley explained at this month’s coalition meeting, drug use and mental health concerns go hand-and-hand.   

“While the focus of this coalition is obviously on (limiting) drugs in the community, we know that – especially over the last two years – throughout the work of the coalition there has been an increasing focus on mental health,” Riley said. “There are lots of opportunities for those to intersect.”

By extension, the grants could help the coalition as well by providing avenues for local students to give input to, and eventually work directly with, the coalition for change.

Riley said one such avenue is Operation Snowball, a program in schools internationally that empowers youth through leadership development, drug-free programming and more.

Davis and Riley said there are groups with similar goals, such as Students Helping Out Waterloo, that will now benefit from the resources and strategies the grants can provide through Operation Snowball.

“I know that the different schools have different groups, but to really organize around Operation Snowball provides us with all kinds of toolkits, resources, people and conventions that can really help in schools,” Riley said. “Then, it provides an avenue to a group of kids who could potentially become a junior board of the coalition.”

Riley said the grants will fund student trips to the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute, a partner of Operation Snowball, leadership camps. At these camps, one being in the summer and the other in the winter, students discuss their community’s needs and how to best implement positive change.

A large part of this process is examining survey data from the Illinois Youth Survey, which is the same data the coalition uses, Riley said.

“Every exercise that we do as an adult coalition, they’re doing it with the teens and they’re saying, ‘How do you want to solve this problem? What do you want to do differently when you go back home and talk to your peers about it, and how can we help you to have the tools to make a change?’” Riley said.

There has been a 20 percent increase in youth struggling with metal health concerns and substances since the pandemic, Riley told the coalition.

“We’re at a crisis,” Davis said. “The demand of our students is at crisis level of need.”

To address this, portions of the funding will go toward employing more HSS counselors and social workers and sending them into schools, Davis and Riley said.

Davis said with the new grant funding, HSS personnel will receive what is called “mental health first aid training,” which will equip them with skills and resources to help somebody in a mental health crisis. Then, the HSS personnel will train community members, such as teachers and other school staff.

In an effort to address issues before they reach a crisis level, the coalition, Davis and HSS are continuing conversations about implementing programs such as COPE, which was detailed at the previous coalition meeting, to build students’ social-emotional resilience.

Davis stressed the schools and HSS working together to serve students’ mental health needs is nothing new, but until now, they had been lacking resources.

“We’ve been working on this for years, we just lacked the resources to make it happen,” he said.

For more about the Community Partnership Grants and COPE, visit republictimes.net. For more on Operation Snowball, visit operationsnowballinc.org

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