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Lincoln women advocate substance abuse prevention through relationship building

By Paul Lonardo

You do not have to look very hard to find alarming statistics about the increasing rate of drug and alcohol use by today’s youth. While no community is immune to this problem, it is far from a hopeless situation. Something can be done about it. And plenty is being done.

According to Teen Drug Rehabs, an online information and social resource site for teens, when a parent talks to their teenager regularly about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, they significantly lessen the chance of their child using drugs.

“You definitely have to establish a connection with your child,” says Pam Shayer, coordinator of the Cumberland, Lincoln and North Smithfield Prevention Coalitions. “Communication is so important in establishing a healthy relationship between a parent and a child. The goal of prevention is to reach them when they are young and get to them before they start using drugs or alcohol.”

The good news is that parents do not have to go it alone in steering their children clear from the dangers of substance abuse. Help is all around.

“With what we do here, even on this level, it’s all about relationship-building,” says Lisa Carcifero, executive director of the Woonsocket Prevention Coalition. “And not just locally, but across city and town lines. It’s about building relationships with the state and with various funding sources, because resources are so very important and limited. Without those relationships, the work can’t be done.”

Pam agrees with her colleague. “With prevention coalitions, you really need to establish strong personal contacts within the community in order to be successful. If you don’t have that support from all the different sectors, particularly school and law enforcement, it’s really difficult to move forward.”

While Pam and Lisa head coalitions in different towns, they work very closely together for the Great Blackstone Valley Coalition, a community alliance that is focused on implementing and supporting education-based strategies to reduce the incidence of alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use by the youth in the towns of Cumberland, Lincoln, North Smithfield, and Woonsocket.

Pam and Lisa also share close ties with the local community. Both women grew up in Lincoln and currently live in the town with their families.

When asked if it was difficult doing their jobs in and around the town in which they grew up, both women resoundingly say that working among people and families they know personally makes communication easier.

“It’s definitely helpful,” Pam says, “but not just because I grew up here in Lincoln. It stems more from being in this town for so long and doing this type of work. Because of this, I’ve established many strong relationships based on mutual respect. I know that I can just pick up the phone and call someone for assistance, whether it’s someone in law enforcement or wherever, and I know they are there to help and that we’re all in this together.”

Pam started out in the treatment field right out of college. She worked as an intern at The Providence Center before beginning her career in the field working as a mental health clinician at Rhode Island Hospital in the Psychiatric Unit. After two years, she heard about a position opening up at Rhode Island Substance Abuse Prevention Coalitions. She applied and got the job, believing she was more suited for working in the prevention field. That was 15 years ago, and she hasn’t looked back since.

“We deal with treatment here,” Pam says, “though we work mainly with prevention, so for me it was a better fit for what I enjoy most; working within the community and implementing programs.”

Lisa received undergraduate degrees in psychology and biology, and then went on to earn a graduate degree in social work before finding work in the mental health/substance abuse field. It was a vocation she felt drawn to, but when she was still in high school there was a tragic incident that affected her deeply and may have influenced the career path she ultimately chose to pursue.

“One of my classmates who had been involved with drugs committed suicide by hanging,” Lisa says. “I’ve never forgotten that I think because it put a face with the issue of substance abuse and mental health. So I think that’s where it all started for me. It was something that is always in the back of my mind. You hear those rites of passage excuses all the time,” she says, “how all the kids are doing it. But it’s the stories that are really extreme, where death results or there is some other form of tragedy, those are the ones that really hit you and stay with you. I think that’s what kind of fuels us because if we can prevent anything like that from happening, then that’s the work we want to do in our community. One overdose, one suicide is too many for a small town like this.”

Pam and Lisa continue to do a lot of parental training to educate them about the current trends in drug use, but they are also there to teach parents how to talk to their child about other issues that may not seem to be related to substance abuse but have a more indirect correlation.

“We have to keep up with what kids are doing,” Pam says. “More so today than ever. Things change fast because of social media and the Internet.”

Sometimes Pam and Lisa learn something at a conference and seminar that they think is new, but when they bring it back to the youth, they discover that the youth know all about it. It is not uncommon for them to go to the youth for information to find out if the information they have is accurate, because while they might be aware of some new trend, that does not mean they have all the facts.

“It can be very confusing,” Pam says. “There is so much information out there on substances and substance abuse, but if you’re not sufficiently educated in a certain field or subject matter, you’re likely going to come away with misinformation that could lead to very dangerous choices. This is particularly true when young people start to experiment, or try something that they think will help them somehow. Even if done for the right reasons, it can turn out badly. Sometimes very badly.”

The Blackstone Valley Prevention Coalition’s primary resource is the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), so their strategies are grounded in science, not hearsay. The NIDA goes through a stringent process before they publish their information, so Pam and Lisa are confident in the accuracy they base their programs on.

“There is always a strategy behind what we do,” Pam says. “We follow a multi-year plan, so by no means is it haphazard. We are very much an evidence-based, data collection-driven field. We strive to weed out the half-truths and misinformation. Data doesn’t lie. Passing along the right information and providing factual information so adults can make the right choices to pass onto the children is vitally important.”

The Coalition publishes a monthly newsletter, so they know they are connected to all the parents in some way, reaching them from elementary through high school. None of what the Coalition does would be effective without the full support of the schools, which disseminate the information and facts to the community. Pam and Lisa receive frequent feedback from parents about particular issues that they want addressed. This constant, open avenue of communication is really how they make the biggest impact and most positive influence on the youth. It’s definitely a community effort.

“I think if parents and the people in the community get information that is true and accurate,” Lisa says, “it can raise awareness to the point where it really makes a difference. When people get that “a-ha” moment, that’s where the big payoff is. I go back again to that classmate in high school who committed suicide, maybe nobody was working with this kid, maybe nobody saw the signs, or even bothered to look. Nobody saw he was distressed, nobody saw that he was high all the time. It wasn’t talked about. It wasn’t discussed in the classroom. It wasn’t discussed at home. Times certainly have changed. We’ve come a long way, and even though we still have a long way to go, I believe we’ll get there.”