Chelsea tackles teen drinking
by Shelley Daily
Last fall, two Chelsea teens died in a motorcycle crash, and a nineteen-year-old Chelsea resident later was charged with supplying them alcohol.
It was the latest in a series of accidents involving area youths, vehicles, and booze over the past decade.
Now, a local philanthropist has given Chelsea unprecedented funding for a campaign to combat teen drinking. Investor and venture capitalist Mike Coghlan and his wife, Suzi, donated $500,000 through their foundation at Chelsea Community Hospital to create a program called "SRSLY"-text-message shorthand for "seriously."
The name is just one of the ways the program tries to reach young people on their turf. A paid marketing campaign, devised by local ad agency Edgar Norman Creative, features SRSLY's edgy logo-which resembles license plate letters-and its bright lime-green color scheme. The program's prevention messages can be found on its website (srslychelsea.org), Facebook page, street pole banners, brochures, posters, T‑shirts, wristbands, and temporary tattoos.
"Youth substance abuse prevention can be a difficult message to send," says Therese Doud, substance abuse prevention coordinator for Washtenaw and Livingston counties. She says SRSLY is doing a good job of building brand identity and recognition of its message for a technology-savvy generation.
But the message also needs to reach parents.
"Some parents are still hosting teen drinking parties," says Reiley Lewis, SRSLY's full-time paid program director. "And they take the car keys from the kids thinking this solves the problem."
On a recent weekday evening, a small group of moms gathers in the library at Pierce Lake Elementary to talk frankly about children, alcohol, and drugs. It's the first session of SRSLY's Guiding Good Choices program, aimed at parents of nine- to fourteen-year-olds.
"What are your hopes and dreams for your child?" asks facilitator Shannon Steinbach, a Chelsea Community Hospital employee who's volunteering with SRSLY. "Substance abuse can destroy these dreams," she points out. "Our goal is to do everything we can now to bubble-wrap-or build protective layers-around our children so they make good choices." Steinbach and co-facilitator Sara
Wild, also a hospital employee, talk about sharing clear standards of behavior, taking time to bond with children, teaching them new skills, and giving recognition when it's due.
Guiding Good Choices was developed by researchers at the University of Washington and has been tested in several states. Kids whose parents attend the program are less likely to use drugs and alcohol than their peers, Lewis says.
SRSLY has partnered with Chelsea Community Hospital and is building a coalition that includes the school district, library, local law enforcement, businesses, religious organizations, parents, and youth. O'Neill Consulting-a Chelsea firm that specializes in prevention, safety, and health promotion projects-conducted a community assessment. It showed that nearly 30 percent of Chelsea eleventh graders have had five or more drinks of alcohol on at least one occasion in the past thirty days, compared to the state average of 24 percent.
"We use local data to make adjustments to the program on a regular basis," says Angela O'Neill, president of O'Neill Consulting and SRSLY executive committee secretary. "We use adult surveys, community input, and information from police to continually monitor our progress."
SRSLY's Youth Empowerment Solutions program is based on research from U-M's School of Public Health. It teaches seventh through tenth graders how to plan and lead their own substance abuse prevention initiatives. Upcoming youth-run programs may include a community read, a photo project, and an educational campaign on pharmacy bags about the dangers of abusing prescripton and over-the-counter drugs.
Besides education programs, SRSLY sponsors social events and a "sticker shock" program, which uses labels on alcohol at participating stores to highlight the law against buying alcohol for minors.
SRSLY has funding for three years and ambitions to become permanent. The Coghlans hope their financial gift will give the program the time it needs to find broader backing. It already receives in-kind donations from many local businesses, including O'Neill Consulting. Eventually they hope it becomes self-supporting through donations and grants.
"Many community coalitions fade because they're parent-run and fall apart when their kids graduate," says Mike Coghlan. "My hope is that over time we get not only the buy-in of this community, but that we can take this program and replicate it in other communities."
The issues SRSLY is addressing are not unique to Chelsea. Mark Schuby, student assistance coordinator for the Saline Schools, oversees its Safe and Drug-Free Schools program and cochairs the Saline Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking with parent Gretchen McCann.
Schuby says Saline's coalition, which includes hospitals, law enforcement, local leaders, schools, parents, and youth, is making inroads in prevention. The group receives only around $7,000 from the Judy Ivan Healthy Communities Endowment. But what it lacks in funding it makes up for in "passion and people," Schuby says. The coalition organizes presentations about drug and alcohol use and monthly parent meetings; in May, it hosted its second annual Parenting Is Prevention conference featuring national speakers, and also held the fifteenth annual Saline Community 24-Hour Relay to raise money for its drug and alcohol prevention programs.
In Dexter, where the rate of alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes among youth is almost three times higher than the county average, the Michigan Office of Drug Control Policy is funding a one-year program to reduce underage drinking. It includes a media campaign discouraging parent-hosted drinking parties.
Parents are a focus in Saline as well-though no students were involved, last year, a group of Saline parents were found drinking alcohol in the high school parking lot on a party bus hired to carry students to the prom.
"Parents need permission to be parents again," says Schuby. "They need to control their own home and backyard. They need to learn how to say no."
[Originally published in July, 2009.]