CAS Presents Award Noting ASAP’s Effort

BETHLEHEM-WOODBURY — The Connecticut Association of Schools has awarded ASAP, the Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention, the 2020 Distinguished Friend of Education Award, the highest award given by CAS to entities not directly involved in public education. The award was to have been presented to ASAP co-chairs Jeff McKenna and Marla Martin, treasurer Maryanne Van Aken and secretary Natalie Scott on March 16 at the Region 14 Board of Education meeting.

The planned presentation was one of hundreds, if not thousands, of area events canceled in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

ASAP was nominated for the prestigious award by Woodbury Middle School Principal William Nemec, who described the group’s efforts as “far reaching and ever increasing over time, regularly resulting in positive learning opportunities for our students and community as a whole.”

Initiated in 1983, the Distinguished Friend of Education Award is given annually to an organization outside the field of education which has furthered educational opportunities and outcomes for Connecticut students.

The list of awardees is distinguished indeed. ASAP joins such recipients as Gov. William A O’Neill, Boehringer-Ingleheim Pharmaceuticals, Judge Thomas Brunnock and a host of attorneys, business leaders and nonprofits.

The award comes on the heels of another milestone accomplishment for ASAP, the awarding in September 2018 of the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America’s Drug Free Communities Grant, an award of $125,000 per year for five years.

Jeff McKenna, who also serves as ASAP’s program chair, recently attended CADCA’s 30th annual National Leadership Forum, a rigorous, comprehensive training program for prevention leaders designed to increase their effectiveness in combating substance abuse in the local community.

Mr. McKenna completed three week-long classroom sessions in Arlington, Va., and three web-based components, receiving a graduation certificate on behalf of ASAP.

The CADCA training was a stipulation of receiving the Drug Free Communities Grant.

Since receiving the grant, ASAP has set up an office, sponsored numerous events and embarked on efforts to increase its name recognition and build relationships in the community.

Building on existing partnerships with Region 14, the resident troopers’ offices in Woodbury and Bethlehem, elected officials in both towns, faith-based organizations and local youth, service and municipal groups, ASAP has initiated a wide range of initiatives, including a Parent University, an ambitious speakers program, an internet safety program called “Secrets of the Apps” and various drug take-back days that allow residents to dispose of unused prescription medicines.

Much-anticipated visits by motivational speakers Chris Herren and Jeff Yalden, originally planned for this spring, will be rescheduled when school resumes.

This school year, ASAP increased participation with the Woodbury Middle School Alliance, a group of student leaders.

“We have a great relationship with that group of young people,” said Ms. Van Aken. “We meet once a month with the group to support the planning they’re doing for activities. We sent them to leadership training this year.”

“We also have a youth action council going at the high school,” said Mr. McKenna. “They complement the Wingman program at the high school. Their drive this year is simply ‘Live a Great Story.’”

At all its events, ASAP continues to hand out Deterra pouches, providing a safe, easy way to dispose of unwanted prescription medications. According to Ms. Van Aken, accessing someone else’s prescription drugs is “ground zero” for those who become addicted to opiates.

“We’ve distributed more than 200 at the Woodbury Senior Center this past year,” said Mr. McKenna.

In December, ASAP hosted Conversation: Cannabis at Nonnewaug High School.

“We’re trying to educate people as the state looks into legalizing recreational use of marijuana,” said Ms. Van Aken. “We want to educate legislators and the public about the dangers of marijuana use, especially by underage youth.”

The group has hosted several Alternative Nights Out for teens, featuring make-your-own pizza and sundaes, games and team-building activities, and was one of a select number of venues to host the second “Screenagers” movie.

They have twice hosted Hidden in Plain Sight, an interactive display offering adults insights into current trends in youth substance abuse, specifically about concealment of illicit drugs and alcohol.

“Hidden in Plain Sight is a set-up of a mock bedroom filled with places a teen could hide drugs and paraphernalia,” Ms. Van Aken explained. “There are hairbrushes with empty handles, deodorant with a false bottom, fake Coke cans… all available online.

“I thought I would be able to spot everything, but I was clueless,” she said. “It’s mindblowing.”

ASAP had been working to bring the Shattered Dreams program to the high school in May, a day-long series of events that includes a re-enactment of an impaired driving accident with fatalities.

Shattered Dreams will be rescheduled to a later date.

“With this grant money, we’ve been trying to build relationships,” said Ms. Van Aken. “We’ve been successful at that with the school system, with law enforcement and the community. The foundation of our success has been these three relationships, and working together.

“People recognize ASAP now,” she said. “They recognize the work we’ve been doing in the community. Before, we were working with a grant of $5,200.  We were sure using that money, but it’s amazing what $125,000 can do. It’s been a game changer. Certainly, for Jeff to be able to do this work [at the CADCA National Coalition Academy] has been huge.”

With its multi-pronged approach to combating substance abuse, ASAP’s message goes beyond a simplistic “Just Say No.”

“We educate,” said Ms. Van Aken. “We educate parents and kids about drugs, about vaping, about alcohol — and about what those things can do to someone whose brain isn’t fully developed. Science says it’s sometime between 25 and 30 before your brain becomes fully developed.”

Last March, ASAP hosted a talk by Dr. Ruth Potee on the teenage brain and how it develops at the Woodbury Library. Her message, Ms. Van Aken recalled, was that the longer you can delay drinking alcohol, smoking pot, taking drugs, the less damage you will do to your brain and the less chance it will become a full-blown addiction.

“Kids today are smart,” she said. “They’re sophisticated. They ask a lot of questions. But they’re making decisions to do things that aren’t healthy. Our stance is let’s give them the information they need, so they can understand that their decisions have consequences.

“On the parents’ side, we acknowledge that some of us smoked pot back in the day,” she said. “But the pot of today is not the pot of the 60s and 70s. Plus, they didn’t have the research on pot’s effect on brain development that we have today.”

“We educate parents so they can have honest conversations and share information around the kitchen table,” said Mr. McKenna. “Because kids do listen.”

Those seeking additional information may message the group through their Facebook page, ASAPWoodbury/Bethlehem.