Be The Influence (BTI) Coalition has been nationally recognized by the Federal Drug-Free Communities (DFC) Support Program and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) for its highly successful youth engagement with students and schools as well its ‘Arts in Prevention’ Series.
Although the concept of BTI began in 2014, it officially began as a DFC coalition a little over six years ago. Its mission is to educate and engage youth and the community on approaches to holistic and healthy choices. They are making great strides in informing area students and their parents in creative ways.
Although the pandemic challenged BTI in its mission, the coalition of volunteers moved forward with gusto, continuing in its innovative manner. It is for this reason, BTI has been nationally recognized for its efforts, before and during the COVID lockdown. All this was a result of an evaluation by DFC and ONDCP that included interviews with school staff, youth, participating businesses, parents and town officials that inquired about BTI projects, events and programs.
“One of the reasons why we were honored is because we have a great group of creative-thinking and committed coalition members who worked alongside the BTI staff during COVID,” BTI Director, Laura Morris said. “Although it was a challenge to get into the classrooms, we worked together to find ways to inform and engage. We held an online Empower ME series for Parents and other community members and hosted outdoor events such as the Family Fun Fitness and Film Festival at Tassel Top Park in Raymond and a Day of Abundant Hope event at Saint Ann’s Episcopal Church in Windham. These programs and events engaged not only students but others in the community as well.”
Briefly, the “Taking Back Maine’s Future” curriculum is the brainchild of WMS teachers Doug Elder, Lee Leroy, AJ Ruth and Gwen Roberts. The class introduced students to the opiate crisis by traveling through time, via research and evaluation of current data and statistics, bringing newspaper articles back from the future: some from the bright promising future where Maine has defeated the epidemic. Others from a dark and dangerous future where the epidemic persists.
BTI supported these teachers by bringing in experts in the field, including Gordon Smith, Director of Opioid Response for the State of Maine, law enforcement and prevention specialists such as Kevin Schofield, Windham’s Chief of Police; Jonathan Sahrbeck, Cumberland County District Attorney; Bridget Rauscher, City of Portland Public Health; Bill Andrew, Windham Police Patrol Captain; and John Kooistra, Windham’s Deputy Fire Chief.
The DFC evaluation report stated:
In addition to regular engagement with health education classes, a key DFC school partnership link has been around an integrated curriculum unit educating youth about opiates titled “Taking Back Maine’s Future: Back to the Future”. BTI provides resources and leads on kicking off the project during an assembly. Teachers across curriculum areas use the project as an opportunity to engage with youth on substance use issues while still meeting content area goals. For example, science teachers discuss brain effects of opiates; math teachers engage in activities around graphing and analyzing drug-related data, social studies teachers discuss the economics of opiates and where in the state (geography) opiates may be making an impact as well as comparison with the nation, and English teachers engage youth in reading books about substance use and recovery.”
But just as important as the youth and school engagement success, BTI’s “Arts in Prevention” series is catching some attention too. Morris, who created the concept of the series, will be presenting the programs in January to other coalitions in Washington DC (currently, there are 720 coalitions like BTI nationwide).
There are many art projects students have participated in including a Puzzle Project, theater camps and after-school dance groups. Morris and her team have also worked closely with the Katahdin School, an alternative education program, with various artforms such as a Hip-Hop recording series, the creation of an e-zine magazine, week-long mindful journaling class and an outdoor chalk art experience based upon the artwork and life of Vincent Van Gogh.
Although BTI and Morris are receiving the recognition, she expresses the importance of the collaborative effort with everyone involved.
“The saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child, is so true,” Morris said. “I feel honored that the RSU 14 school district, their parents, the staff as well as the towns of Raymond and Windham have collaborated enthusiastically with BTI. I could not be prouder for all the involvement. It’s the community that is doing the work and is the real reason for BTI’s success.”
Morris wishes to extend an invitation to the community for a free screening of the documentary, “Jacinta”, which follows the journey of a young Maine woman struggling with addiction after her release from prison, at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 4 at the Westbrook Arts Center, 471 Stroudwater St. in Westbrook. A panel discussion will follow to include Jacinta herself, the director of the film Jessica Earnshaw, Gordon Smith, Jonathan Sahrbeck and Brittany Rechman, a Windham High School graduate who will discuss her own story of recovery. Be The Influence will be co-hosting this event with Westbrook Partners in Prevention, another DFC coalition.
Any individual or organization can become a coalition member. All it takes is a passion to make a positive impact, no matter your area of expertise.
For more information or to become involved as a coalition member, email Laura Morris at firstname.lastname@example.org <