As funding dwindles, GCSAPP focuses on community collaborations
Nearly a decade ago it became clear that the young people of Gunnison County were at high risk for making dangerous choices. In 2006, due to the many risk factors associated with living in a frontier community—a designation based on the number of people per square acre and being smaller than a rural community—the Department of Human Services identified youth substance abuse and use in Gunnison County as one of the highest areas of concern throughout the state.
This troubling information urged many to beg the question of why there was no organization within the community dedicated to prevention education. It didn’t take long for the county to address this need, using a Colorado Prevention Partners grant. In 2007 the Gunnison County Substance Abuse Prevention Project, GCSAPP, a coalition of residents, professionals and young people, was formed.
Significant progress has been made since the advent of the project. Current director Kari Commerford explains, although GCSAPP faced an intimidating state of affairs in 2006, prevention, programming and community collaborations have successfully decreased countywide youth substance use and abuse.
“You can look at numbers in high school or in middle school, and then substance-specific, and I think it’s great to note that in all areas, substance abuse has decreased,” Commerford said.
Based on the number of people per square acre, frontier communities such as Gunnison County are considered underserved, meaning amenities and recourses are scarce, therefore leading to a higher risk of youth substance use and abuse. This reality was the motivation behind starting GCSAPP to facilitate community-level change throughout the valley using evidence-based prevention education.
Data collected through various surveys, specifically the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, allows GCSAPP to identify substance use trends across the county. In 2006, 78 percent of middle school and high school students reported not using a variety of substances, including alcohol, marijuana and tobacco, within the past 30 days, and never having used non-prescribed prescription drugs. In 2013, that statistic increased to 87 percent countywide. GCSAPP says its goal for 2016 is to reach 90 percent.
A possible explanation behind the decrease in substance use and abuse, Commerford explained, is the implementation of the Choice Pass Program, which rewards students for making healthy choices by offering perks and discounts at local businesses throughout the valley. The Nordic Center, CBMR, Third Bowl, the Gunnison Community Center, Rumors and Mario’s are among the many businesses that offer rewards to Choice Pass holders.
“If they are using and they get caught, then they have the potential of losing their Choice Pass, so that may be behind the increase in perception of harm,” Commerford said.
The Choice Pass Program, which is funded by the state through the Tony Grampsas Youth Grant, has proven to be one of GCSAPP’s most successful projects. In 2011, 60 students were Choice Pass holders. This year, the program boasts just over 700 members, encompassing 6th to 12th grade students across Gunnison, Crested Butte and Lake City.
Each October students are given the opportunity to sign up for the Choice Pass, which means agreeing to stay substance-free by complying with random drug tests. Pledge forms are filled out and signed by students, while parents are asked to sign waivers.
“People personalize their pledges in different ways, so it’s not just about staying substance-free, it’s also about making personal, healthy choices,” project coordinator Michelle Elias said. “We’ve had no violations and no one’s Choice Pass has been taken away for substance abuse this year.”
Robby Oberling, CBCS 7th grader, said his decision to sign up for a Choice Pass was motivated by his love for Nordic skiing.
“The Choice Pass lets me make healthy choices so I can go fast in Nordic,” Oberling explained. “My brain is still developing, so if I did any substances right now it would mess up my life.”
A major part of decreasing risk factors within the community is heightening parent awareness and involvement, and this year the Choice Pass committee chose to increase parent accountability by asking them to also attend sign-up night.
Oberling’s mother, Jen, participates regularly in GCSAPP-sponsored programs, such as the Pass the Knowledge campaign, a six-month educational series meant to provide parents with the necessary tools and information to discuss the realities of substance use and abuse with their kids.
“I’m really looking forward to the next talk, which is about marijuana and the developing brain,” Oberling said. “Learning about how marijuana affects the brain, especially for youths, is super helpful for me, just to stay current.”
Many had feared that the recent legalization of marijuana would increase instances of use and abuse among young people. In Crested Butte, this appears to be the case. In 2012, 84 percent of Crested Butte High School students reported not having used marijuana within the past 30 days. That number dropped to 72 percent in 2013, a 12 percent increase in reported use.
Despite these results, according to Commerford, the perception of harm of marijuana has actually increased since pot became legal, as evidenced by the results of the most recent Colorado Healthy Kids Survey. In 2012, 46 percent of students countywide said they associated great risk with marijuana use. In 2013, that number rose to 55 percent. Commerford notes GCSAPP education and programming, such as the Choice Pass project, may explain the increase in perceived harm.
Living in a community where marijuana is legal has forced GCSAPP to reevaluate the manner by which they discuss substance use. Elias explained that with legalization came the unique responsibility to provide accurate, honest information about marijuana use to both parents and students.
“It’s here, and it’s legal, so for us to go in and say ‘don’t do this,’ it doesn’t really make sense,” Elias said. “For me at least, having realistic conversations has been really effective.”
Of course, since marijuana use is legal only for those 21 and older, GCSAPP focuses largely on educating parents on how to identify reliable research.
“Research about adolescent use and the effect on the brain is very scarce, so we really just focus on how to look at research and determine if it is legitimate,” Commerford said.
Curriculum within the county’s schools has also played an integral part in GCSAPP’s success. Prevention education specialist Emily Litwin explained that a combined focus on skill building, self-efficacy, communication, empathy skills and emotional management have replaced the outdated “drugs are bad” strategy, which experts view as highly ineffective.
“There is information about drugs and why you shouldn’t use them, but it’s more focused on building up skills and protective factors, and getting kids confident in their choices,” Litwin said.
Heightening protective factors—anything that will increase a child’s ability to endure a difficult experience and become resilient afterwards—has been extremely effective within Gunnison County, Commerford said. Collaborating with the community, providing families with the necessary recourses and information, teaching good self esteem and emotional intelligence are all examples of protective factors enacted by GCSAPP to reduce the risk of youth substance abuse within the valley.
“GCSAPP is unique because it is so community-focused in its programming, and its messages and education, so that is why I think it has been so successful for so many years,” Commerford said. “We know what works here and what doesn’t.”
Currently, GCSAPP is supported by four major grants, with the Drug Free Communities Federal Grant, DFC, providing the majority of funding. Unfortunately, the DFC grant carries a 10-year maximum, meaning that in four years these federal monies will no longer sustain the program. Because of this, Commerford is intent on establishing GCSAPP as a community necessity. Ideally, after funding runs out, GCSAPP would like to be absorbed at least in part by the community’s schools.
“GCSAPP will still exist when this funding runs out, but it won’t exist in the capacity that it does in these next four years,” Commerford said. “It’s part of our County Strategic Plan to keep GCSAPP alive, so that it will always exist, but we have four more years of really good funding, allowing us to all work really hard and get GCSAPP in the community and in the schools.”
For more information on how to support GCSAPP and become more involved, visit www.gunnisoncounty.org.