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Extension agents work to prevent substance abuse

A Pendleton County Champions Coalition billboard promoting asset building in the county.
A Pendleton County Champions Coalition billboard promoting asset building in the county.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Kenna Knight
Lexington, Ky.

For many Kentuckians, the effects of substance abuse are all too real as they’ve either watched their friends and family struggle with these issues or have personally battled addiction.

A 2006 study published by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that Kentucky led the nation in the percentage of residents who reported using psychotherapeutic drugs, prescription pain relievers and prescription tranquilizers for nonmedical reasons within the previous year.

Active in their communities, county extension agents with the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service have seen the effects of substance abuse. They are working to battle the problem through community partnerships and education.

“Extension agents know that by working in community coalitions and sharing their stories, they are helping lead grassroots efforts for change,” said Jeanne Davis, coordinator of the Different Faces of Substance Abuse Conference Team and UK extension program coordinator. “Their preventative programs are working to reduce the effects of substance abuse in their local populations.”

“So many families are going through this problem with someone in their family or extended family,” said Natasha Lucas, Owsley County family and consumer sciences extension agent. “As many families realize, this problem of drug abuse and misuse does not discriminate.”

Lucas is one of the many agents who have been involved with substance abuse education efforts for many years. She has focused on a variety of issues including awareness about methamphetamine and prescription drug abuse and misuse. She currently serves on the Owsley Drug Awareness Council, which is in the final year of a five-year, drug-free community grant from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Lucas has partnered with the council for many extension programs, including those that raise awareness of youth drug abuse and its consequences. She has conducted educational sessions with elementary boys’ and girls’ basketball teams on the importance of keeping their brains healthy and drug free. In addition, the county’s 2nd Sunday, an extension event that promotes community physical activity, has a drug-free message.

“We have made some strides as a community in our battle against drug abuse, but we still have a lot of work to do,” she said.

In Pendleton County, Kenna Knight, family and consumer sciences extension agent, has tackled various forms of substance abuse and violence in her community as a member of the Pendleton County Champions Coalition for the past decade. The group includes representatives from community organizations including the health department, family resource centers, school personnel, the Northern Kentucky branch of the Kentucky Agency for Substance Abuse Prevention, and the Assistance for Substance Abuse Prevention Center in the Greater Cincinnati Area. The group focuses their efforts on the Search Institute’s concept of asset building to help prevent young people from becoming abusers and victims.

She said local data has shown that youth who skip school, threaten other students, get into trouble with law enforcement and get below average grades are at a greater risk for substance abuse than their peers.

 “Anyone can be an asset builder for a young person,” Knight said. “We like asset building because it reminds people of the positive things they can do, such as having a family dinner or encouraging participation in school activities, to help youth focus on their strengths, develop positive attitudes and to give them positive role models.”

Knight and the coalition have dedicated part of a billboard campaign to asset building and train community members to become asset builders. The coalition also partnered with local pharmacies to put stickers on prescription bags explaining the proper disposal of unused medication.

She’s also used asset building in an extension program called Recipe for Life, in which fifth-graders work with an adult family member to learn about a family recipe and the story behind it. These recipes and stories are compiled in a book that is shared with other students in their grade. The students then go the Cooperative Extension office, where adult and student volunteers help them learn about meal preparation, setting a table and manners. Knight invites the students and their families to share a meal at the extension office to reflect on their work and encourages them to cook and eat family meals together.

Since the formation of the Pendleton County Champions Coalition, the percentages of the county’s middle and high school students regularly using cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana have all declined.

Like Knight and Lucas, Tracy Thornton Cowles, Butler County family and consumer sciences extension agent, has been actively involved with local substance abuse prevention efforts. While initial concerns with drug problems in her county focused on methamphetamine use, prescription drug abuse and misuse has now become an issue as well.

 She uses positive reinforcement in talking with young people about substance abuse prevention and in her work with recovering substance abusers at a local treatment facility in Morgantown.

“I work with women at Andrea’s Mission on basic communication skills, dealing with pressure, parenting skills, motivational skills and even life skills like couponing,” she said. “The goal of the organization is to get these women the tools and skills they need to successfully live drug-free on their own once they leave the center.”

At the request of her County Extension Council, Cowles developed a program for fourth- and fifth-graders called Students Against Meth, where she discusses and shows photos of the effects of methamphetamine use. She also presents a drug-free message to every student at North Butler Elementary School as part of Red Ribbon Week.

Contact: 

Kenna Knight, 859-654-3395; Natasha Lucas, 606-593-5109; Tracy Thornton Cowles, 270-526-3767; Jeanne Davis, 859-257-2097

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