Children and parents create posters as part of the Second Step drug-abuse prevention program at Kalihi Uka Elementary School.

Coalition’s Philosophy: An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

August, 2016

COALITION FOR A DRUG-FREE HAWAII WAS founded in 1987 by 15 forward-looking community members, among them banker Walter Dods and attorney Je Watanabe.

“The original board included a Who’s Who of educators, military and faith leaders, and businesspeople,” says executive director Alan Shinn. “This was during the second wave of the crystal meth epidemic in Hawaii. They felt there needed to be some agency that represented drug-abuse prevention.

“We didn’t have a lot of funding to begin with, so the original executive director, Sandy Lacar, ran the organization out of the back trunk of her car!”

Shinn says the coalition started as a policy and advocacy nonprofit, then evolved to also provide direct services. Today the nonprofit has
a $1.2-million budget, about 20 full-time staff, and survives on fundraising and about a dozen grants. Although the coalition is considered a leader in substance-abuse prevention, there’s still that “underdog mentality – prevention is always underfunded and misunderstood,” bemoans Shinn.

Among the coalition’s many services is its Second Step drug-abuse prevention program at Kalakaua Intermediate School and other schools in Kalihi. “We teach students problem-solving skills: how to handle peer pressure, refusal skills, what do you do if someone tries to hurt you?

“Substance abuse can originate from different social factors. Are you bullied at school? Are you under stress at home and can’t talk to anyone? If you have a significant adult in your life to go to, the chances are higher you’ll do OK.”

Prevention is hard to measure, but coalition collects data on how well its messages engage young people.

It also has “environmental strategies,” such as advocacy, policy, town-hall meetings, engaging law enforcement, developing community strategies against drug dealers, and forming a coalition of business and community members against substance abuse.

One popular program called Strengthening Hawaii Families has been “translated” into many different cultural settings, such as for Native American Indians on the Mainland, in Guam and American Samoa, and in public housing projects for Vietnamese, Chuukese and Marshallese people.

“It works very well because we’re not only stressing drug prevention, but family bonding, communication and how to resolve conflict.”

In 2003, Hawaii was one of the few states to receive funding for
a school-based program in which children 14 and older could refer themselves for substance-abuse treatment without parental consent. Although Shinn mostly sees this as an improvement, his agency also works to resolve the reasons children don’t feel comfortable revealing drug use to their parents.

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Jackie M. Young