Sound strategy needed to help community’s youth

No one person or organization in the South Sound is more affected by the rapidly shifting landscape of social values and mores than those working to prevent youth violence and substance abuse and promoting healthy lifestyles for our children.

Public acceptance of responsible marijuana use by adults, for example, symbolized by last year’s passage of decriminalization laws in Washington and Colorado, is trickling down to young people. The most recent statewide Healthy Youth Survey found that high school students are twice as likely to smoke pot as cigarettes.

That single fact represents the challenge faced by Together, the South Sound’s coordinating organization for youth issues.

A well-funded, science-based education campaign worked to diminish high school smoking, and parallel campaigns produced similar results to curtail underage drinking. A Together campaign at Tumwater High School reduced underage drinking by 58 percent.

But at a time of relaxing marijuana laws, the 2013 state budget completely eliminated funding for community mobilization programs that could have enabled Together to mount a similar campaign to help young people make smart decisions about pot.

Together Executive Director Jim Cooper says it’s accepted among youth advocacy experts that “just saying no” doesn’t work. What does work are carefully planned public health campaigns that educate people about substances such as tobacco or marijuana.

Effective public education campaigns are expensive, and local nonprofits don’t have the money. This year’s state budget completely eliminated a state Department of Commerce program that has historically provide funding to organizations around the state like Together to mobilize community efforts to exert local control over reducing youth violence and abuse.

Successive Legislatures have been quick to ignore voter intent and sweep revenue from sin taxes that was supposed to go toward preventing and mitigating the harm caused in the community.

Together has not given up the fight. It founded an organization in 2008, called the Thurston Council for Children and Youth, to address any duplication of services by regional groups and to figure out how to use available funding more wisely.

The council is developing a prioritized list of youth services needed in the South Sound based on minimizing the negative effects of adverse childhood experiences. That list will represent the collective impact of all youth-oriented action groups operating in the region, and offer grant providers, policy makers and agencies a guide for distributing funds.

When the council finishes its work in the fall, it will likely stir controversy within the youth services community. Identification of whose programs have the greatest effect ultimately means some nonprofits will receive fewer funds while others will get more. It’s a common-sense effort to get more bang for the buck.

Together is well-suited to lead this effort. It has been convening community conversations since 1989. Much of Thurston County’s social services structure has result from Together’s work – for example, Yelm Community Services, the food banks in Rainier and Tenino and Rochester’s ROOF.

By detaching itself from investing in upstream problems, the state Legislature has forced social service organizations, such as Together, that focus on prevention, to consolidate and blend resources. That may not be a bad thing in the short term, but it’s an unsustainable approach for the long term.