Meeting with Sen. Shaheen

Winchester youth coalition members pose for a photo with U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., at the CADCA leadership forum in Washington, D.C., in February. Pictured here are, from left, Zach Erway, Ben Calderwood, Ethan Miller, Jeremy Miller, Winchester police Sgt. Dean Wright, Shaheen, ACCESS Executive Director Missy Calderwood, Winchester Police Chief Mike Tollett, Cheshire Medical Center Continuum of Care Coordinator John Letendre and Winchester parent Denise Erway.

WINCHESTER — A Winchester-based youth coalition is slated to receive more than half a million dollars in federal grant money to help prevent substance misuse among local teenagers.

The coalition — created in 2018 through the nonprofit, faith-based community service agency Salt & Light Ministries — will receive $125,000 annually for five years, starting Dec. 31.

The group is made up of 10 high-school and middle-school students and is aimed at reducing youth substance use while also strengthening community partnerships, according to coalition Director Jeremy Miller, who founded Salt & Light.

“The strategy is to really work with middle-schoolers, develop a program with them, and build positive relationships from high school to middle school and [with] adult community members,” said Miller, 42, a Winchester resident who serves as pastor of Center Church.

The idea stems from the coalition’s 2019 survey of Winchester middle school students, which asked if they use drugs or alcohol, and if they do, why.

The survey, according to Miller, showed most of the kids were using drugs or alcohol for one of two reasons: to help them perform better academically, or to cope with not doing well in school.

“The thought process that [the coalition] had was to build positive community connections with adults and peers in elementary and middle school before they get to high school so this doesn’t continue to happen,” he said.

Statewide, just over 30 percent of teens said they had an alcoholic drink in the past 30 days, according to a 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services.

Fewer — 25.3 percent — admitted to using marijuana in the same time frame, and fewer than 5 percent of those surveyed said they had ever used heroin or methamphetamine.

To prevent students from resorting to substance use, the coalition decided to focus its initiative on educating 6th- and 8th-grade students, according to Miller, who previously served as the executive director of ACCESS, an after-school program at Winchester School.

In the grant’s first year, Miller said the federal dollars will be used to develop and implement prevention-education curriculum in the Winchester School District, as well as training for coalition members on how to talk with students about drug misuse and how to deliver that message.

The curriculum piece, Miller explained, would consist of local law enforcement talking to Winchester students in their classes about drug use — similar to the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program — as well as implementing drug-prevention programming in Winchester’s after-school program and the area’s faith-based youth groups.

The coalition has also teamed up with several community members — including representatives of law enforcement, education, local businesses, faith organizations and after-school programs — to help with these efforts and further develop student connections within the community.

One of those is Winchester Police Chief Mike Tollett, who said the coalition receiving this funding is “fabulous.”

“Salt & Light’s continued sponsorship of preventing youth tobacco use and drug and alcohol abuse is key to helping our youth to be successful contributing members of the community,” he said in an email. “Our department looks forward to the ongoing collaboration ... to combat the dangerousness of teen tobacco and substance abuse.”

And while community leaders are helping, Miller added that coalition members will be “the ones actually making the decisions, receiving the training and doing the work.”

The coalition was one of two organizations in New Hampshire last week to be awarded the federal grant, which is administered by the Office of National Drug Control Policy and supported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The other program is in Laconia.

The Drug Free Communities Support Program is a national effort to mobilize communities to prevent youth substance use, according to a recent news release from New Hampshire’s congressional delegation announcing the latest awards.

While Salt & Light has a Christian faith-based mission, Miller noted that there will be no religious push for the students the coalition works with.

“Faith-based organizations have to follow the same stringent protocols and qualifiers as all of the other approved applicant organizations like community-based organizations, municipalities and schools,” he said.

“Funds are not allowed to be used to proselytize,” he added.

Ultimately, Miller said the coalition wants the middle-schoolers to have someone to turn to — whether it be a high-school student, teacher or community member — when they need help, rather than to substance use.

At the end of the grant’s first year next December, the coalition will reconvene to go over its progress and set goals for the next grant cycle. While it will always focus on youth drug prevention, Miller said the funding’s use will vary each year depending on the community’s needs.

“The [goal] is to not be reactive, but to get in a position where we are proactive and not a drug-free community, but a healthy community with healthy conversations and set healthy standards together,” he said.

The coalition hopes to increase its membership to 20 students by the end of the year. Those interested in joining can contact Miller directly at saltandlighttt@gmail.com.

Olivia Belanger can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or obelanger@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @OBelangerKS.