Communities That Care

On Dec. 4, Communities That Care middle and high school students joined forces for a Noel Night fundraiser on main street, raising over $300 for the program. The next meeting of Communities That Care is Jan. 9 at 8:30 a.m. in the program room at the Wilkinson Public Library. The general public is welcome to attend. Courtesy photo

Sometimes it seems like Telluride wears two very different labels: party town and a great place for kids. Inhabiting the space where these labels bump up against each other is Communities That Care (CTC), an evidence-based, collaborative program that seeks to prevent youth behavior problems, like substance abuse.

“We are a festival town and our youth are exposed to a lot of it,” Tri-County Health Network’s Paul Reich acknowledged.

The Telluride School District, for instance, participated in Healthy Kids Colorado surveys in 2013 and 2017 that indicated district youth were engaging in risky behaviors, including alcohol and cannabis use, more than their peers across the state, but that they constituted the minority of Telluride young people overall.

“We know that our youth tend to use substances at a higher rate than the state and national averages, but we also know that a majority of our youth do not use these substances,” Reich explained.

In the midst of those two surveys, TCHNetwork sought a grant to bring the highly regarded CTC model to Telluride.

In January 2017, TCHNetwork received that grant, and Reich and his colleagues, including Behavioral Health Program Coordinator Samantha Damsky, whose work focuses largely on young people, promptly swung into action to build a CTC program here.

The next CTC meeting will take place Thursday at 8:30 a.m. in the program room at the Wilkinson Public Library. The general public is welcome and encouraged to attend, said Reich, who described CTC as a “structured, evidence-based community-change process. ... It has been around nationally for many years, but in 2016 the State of Colorado decided to use cannabis tax dollars to seed the development of these programs across the state. About 50 communities took advantage of it. The focus is on preventing or reducing youth substance use, increasing protective factors and reducing risk factors in the lives of our youth, and supporting youth as they come of age in our community.”

According to Damsky, this week’s gathering will look at which strategies Telluride’s CTC will focus on in 2020.

“Based on the data from various surveys, focus groups and what our youth are saying, we think that continuing to build support for a permanent youth center is critical,” Damsky said. “In addition, the group may want to look at building support for family friendly events, for example, where alcohol isn't served, and helping the school district identify a district-wide social-emotional learning curriculum.”

She added, “At last month's meeting, we looked at the results of a parent and community survey that surveyed members on their perceptions of youth and adult substance use in our communities. While the 139 respondents didn't report anything we didn't already suspect, it reinforced the belief that we should be doing more as a community to help prevent underage use of these substances.”

Already underway are programs that seek to reduce the chances of Telluride teens getting their hands on certain substances in the first place.

“We've got two programs aimed at reducing youth access to alcohol ("Don't Feed the Cubs") and cannabis (“Leaf No Trace”) by educating adults in the community to not provide these substances to youth, either intentionally or accidentally,” Damsky said.

CTC is also looking at ways of reducing vaping.

“We also know that vaping has become problematic in our schools and that the old models of punishment don’t work,” Reich said. “We can help the schools and our community address this usage and can help to educate our youth and parents about the risks e-cig use for adolescents.”

Steering local young people away from things like alcohol, cannabis and e-cigarettes is important; it also takes a village, Reich said, pointing out that the CTC model emphasizes building coalitions within the community.

“At a recent coalition meeting, we had a great discussion with all three heads of our local law enforcement agencies, our assistant district attorney and members of San Miguel County Juvenile Services and Social Services about the limitations of what law enforcement can do when it comes to youth substance use,” he said. “We were also able to use the coalition's influence to prevent the opening of cannabis social consumption rooms and to raise the age of purchase for tobacco products, including e-cigs, in Telluride to 21, although that was since rendered moot by the federal action.”

Damsky explained that Telluride’s CTC has two committees, one of “key leaders” that typically have access to or control over budgets, policies and law-making, including representatives from local government, the school district, local law enforcement, health and mental-health care providers, businesses and youth-oriented nonprofits; and then a community board that includes some from the key leaders, as well as parents, interested community members and school staff

“We have had great representation from the community,” she said. “The reality is that the two boards are really one. They meet at the same time and we're not sticklers for membership. If you care about youth and want to be involved, we're happy to have you there.”

The existence of the CTC program in Telluride has also led to further grant funding, including the federal Drug-Free Communities Grant.

“It is a five-year grant to reduce youth substance use.” Reich said. “We were the only Colorado community to receive the grant in 2018 when we applied. Without the coalition's presence, we would not have been eligible to receive this grant.”

He added, “We have a great community and we offer a lot to our youth in terms of opportunities, but we can always do more.”