Communities That Care Coalition continues to tackle youth issues

  • Kat Allen, coordinator of the Communities That Care Coalition, speaks previously about the program. STAFF FILE PHOTO/JOSHUA SOLOMON

Staff Writer
Published: 6/12/2019 6:12:00 PM

GREENFIELD — The Communities That Care Coalition will be busy this year, working on everything from gender and race equality to youth leadership to healthy lifestyles.

The coalition brings together youth, parents, schools, community agencies and local governments to promote the health and well-being of young people throughout Franklin County and the North Quabbin region, though members said they are hoping to have more of a presence in the North Quabbin. It is co-hosted by Community Action Pioneer Valley and the Partnership for Youth, a Franklin Regional Council of Governments program.

Rachel Stoler, community health program manager for FRCOG, said the coalition started in 2002 and she joined in January 2003.

“At the beginning, it was all about planning the curriculum,” she said. “We did a survey of teens the first year to identify risk and protective factors. We still do surveys every year, but our work has expanded.”

Stoler said rather than focus on problems, the coalition focuses on the risk factors that, for instance, might lead a youngster to start using drugs or alcohol. This year, five working groups will be looking at different, as well as similar, issues: Regional School Health Task Force, Racial Justice, Youth Leadership Initiative, Policy and Practice Change and Mass in Motion.

Stoler heads up the coalition’s Racial Justice work group, along with Kent Alexander, an anti-racism and workplace culture consultant. She also heads the Mass in Motion work group.

“We’ve been working on different issues for the past 16 years,” Stoler said. “A lot has changed, but there are new challenges. That’s why our work groups change over time.”

Stoler said when she first started, alcohol and tobacco were two of the bigger issues plaguing teens. Today, it’s vaping and marijuana. She said depression and anxiety have also increased in teens — or, at least, they’re reporting it more.

“Our work is never done,” Stoler said.

She said the work groups don’t do any “direct service work” but rather report to partners like Community Action, Big Brothers Big Sisters, area schools and others, who then work directly with youth.

“We stay aware of what might be on the horizon,” she said. “We know we aren’t going to wave a magic wand. We’re realistic. It’s a lot of work.”

Stoler said one of the issues the coalition plans to tackle this year is looking at itself and its makeup.

“We’re discussing why our coalition is so white,” she said. “Is it welcoming to people who don’t look like us?”

Alexander said he is the only person of color working within the groups. He said his group will be looking at issues of equity and inclusion, and will be connecting with existing services that serve marginalized groups.

“We’ll be looking at ways we can inform people of what we’re doing,” he said. “We’ll be doing a needs assessment and helping the coalition move forward toward better health equity, which includes housing, food, activity and substance abuse. We’ll be looking at our youths’ risky behaviors.”

Alexander said much of the work the coalition does is data-driven.

“We don’t have all the answers,” he said. “But we’re working on it.”

Coalition Coordinator Kat Allen, who heads up the Regional School Health Task Force with Jeanette Voas, evaluation coordinator for the Partnership for Youth, said the coalition’s work groups have their work cut out for them.

“Our group’s goal will be to reduce chronic disease in youths, encourage healthy eating and exercise, and focus on health equity,” Allen said. “A system of racial inequity contributes to health inequities within our communities.”

Allen said some of the programs her group will be supporting include Complete Streets — which makes streets within towns and cities into safe, age-friendly communities, allowing seniors to age in place — as well as school nutrition and food distribution programs.

Meanwhile, Mass in Motion, a statewide program, works to promote healthy eating and active living. Its membership includes town administrators and public health officials, hospital and community health center staff, land and transportation planners, and public school and higher education staff. Stoler said the work group will carry on with the same mission at a local level.

Myck LeMay, leadership development and education coordinator at Community Action, said the Youth Leadership Initiative will focus on getting youth involved in their communities in ways that resonate with them.

“They’re already doing it, but we want to get more youths involved,” she said.

LeMay said, for instance, five students went to the Montague Zoning Board of Appeals recently to advocate for a buffer zone between schools and marijuana facilities.

“After listening to them, the ZBA increased the buffer zone from 100 feet to 300 feet,” she said. “The youth wanted 500 feet, but they were happy that they got something.”

LeMay said another group of teens went to the Greenfield’s City Council when $200,000 was added to the budget for a school police officer.

“They said there were enough school resource officers — and, they didn’t always make all children feel safer,” LeMay said. “Instead, they asked that the money be used for the ‘emotional needs’ of students, so they would feel more connected.”

LeMay said it’s cliche, but, “young adults are our future.

“I’ll be in retirement, reading books, and they will be activists,” she said. “They already have strong opinions and voices. They’re laying the groundwork for what their communities will look like — they’re shaping our communities. That’s why our work is so important.”

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-0261, ext. 269 or afritz@recorder.com.

 




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