Nominees sought for youth substance abuse prevention group


Published: 1/9/2019 3:32:56 PM

Thanks to a federal grant, the North Quabbin Community Coalition is starting a new initiative focused on drug-use prevention, giving youth a voice in how they would like to see the problem of addiction addressed in their communities.

In October, the North Quabbin Community Coalition (NQCC) received a five-year, $500,000 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grant to support substance abuse prevention programs. Now they are seeking high school and middle school students between the ages of 12 and 18 to serve on the first ever North Quabbin Youth Advisory Council.

“We want to educate families and we want to support families,” said Heather Bialecki-Canning, executive director of NQCC. “It’s interesting because we have some things in place anyway, and this grant allowed us to finally fund it and pay attention to it and expand it.”

The grant will help bolster staffing and resources at the NQCC and advance the goals of other substance abuse prevention programs. With the money the NQCC was able to hire two full-time positions: a youth and engagement coordinator, Amanda Mankowsky, and the Drug Free Communities coordinator, Sarah Collins, who are organizing the new youth group.

“We want to create a different network of peer support in a place they can have fun and feel like they’re been heard,” Collins said. 

The grant will help the NQCC expand the PART (Prevention, Addiction, Recovery, Treatment) Task Force, made up of a diverse assortment of community members from law enforcement to parents and those in recovery from addiction. The Youth Advisory Council will work with the nearly 40-member PART Task Force and the NQCC’s 18-member Parent Advisory Council to identify ways they can combat drug use and increase education. Together the PART Task Force and NQCC opened the North Quabbin Recovery Center in downtown Athol last April, too.

“We want kids to feel like their parents are in touch,” Collins said. 

Their top priorities are preventing the underage use of alcohol, marijuana and vaping. 

“Over the last several years, what our data shows us is that marijuana and alcohol continue to be the things that our youth struggle with the most,” Bialecki-Canning said. “Newly, this year, vaping is a huge concern.”

The Partnership for Youth in Greenfield conducts an annual survey of the substance use, anti-social behaviors and risk factors for nine communities in the North Quabbin and Franklin county area. This year, the partnership determined that while alcohol and marijuana use declined overall in the last decade, vaping increased drastically with 31 percent of middle and high school students having tried it in the last year. In general, lower income youth use drugs and alcohol at a higher rate, and girls experience depressive symptoms more frequently, leaving them at a higher risk of substance abuse. 

The Drug Free Communities grant comes from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Demonstrating success, the grant is eligible for a six to 10 year extension. 

In years past, the NQCC had trouble securing the SAMHSA grant because it serves sparsely populated rural communities. Residents of rural communities in central Massachusetts face unique issues of isolation, transportation, and food security that can exacerbate problems with substance abuse.

“Our poverty looks a little different than urban poverty,” Bialecki-Canning said. “Our population was not as large as our competitors, but the needs were the same.”

Thankfully, federal government gave more consideration to rural communities when awarding the grant money, she said.

Founded 34 years ago, the North Quabbin Community Coalition partners with multiple area organizations to improve the quality of life and wellbeing of people in the region. One partner, Heywood Healthcare, will serve as the fiscal manager of the grant funds, Bialecki-Canning said. 

Any student from the North Quabbin region can participate in the council, where they will gain experience working collaboratively with others to identify and address problems related to public health, education and community organizing. The hope is that young people can give the NQCC with a fresh perspective and new ideas about how to combat substance abuse.

“You need to improve quality of life. You need to improve connectedness to the community and improve education for parents,” Bialecki-Canning said. “So those are the kinds of things we will be working on.”

The NQCC will be accepting nominations for the Youth Advisory Council on a rolling basis, but interested applicants are encouraged to submit their nomination forms by Friday, Jan. 18. The first meeting is tentatively scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 24. Sponsors and interested students can send nomination forms to Sarah Collins at or mail them to the NQCC’s main office at  251 Exchange St. in Athol.

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