Saratoga County

Prevention Council celebrates 30 years of helping city youth

At a 30th anniversary event on Tuesday, the Alcohol and Substance Abuse Prevention Council unveiled

The Alcohol and Substance Abuse Prevention Council was into preventing youth drug and alcohol use before such programs were widespread.

When Judy Ekman and four other people started prevention work in the late 1970s and incorporated the Prevention Council as an entity in 1981, it was the first such group in the state.

At a 30th anniversary event on Tuesday, the council unveiled a new logo and celebrated its three decades of making a difference in the lives of young people.

Drinking rates among Saratoga Springs high-schoolers have dipped from 60 percent in 2000 to 40 percent in 2010, a testament to the work the Prevention Council has done in the school district, said Heather Kisselback, executive director.

“It definitely was a problem in this community,” Kisselback said.

Shenendehowa Central School District also saw its drug and alcohol use drop in the time between the 2008 survey and one last year, said Evan Williamson, Shenendehowa Coalition coordinator.

The issues are perhaps more diverse than they were in 1981, when teen drinking and drug use were the main concern.

“Thirty years ago there weren’t cellphones and there wasn’t texting and there wasn’t cyberbullying,” Kisselback said. “One of the things that we just try to do is stay relevant and stay on top of it.”

Now in addition to the known drugs, synthetic marijuana and “binge in a can,” drinks with high alcohol content, are a problem.

The Prevention Council now works with students on wider issues, including smoking and bullying, between first and 12th grade. And the group works in the community, training bartenders and waiters not to serve someone who is visibly intoxicated, and putting stickers on cases of beer sold in stores, reminding people that it’s illegal to buy alcohol for those under 21.

core group

Three decades ago the council was ground-breaking, said Ekman, longtime executive director who retired in 2010.

“It was at a time that everyone assumed that all the drug abuse was in the cities,” Ekman recalled. But after the state’s first youth drug survey showed that wasn’t the case, several local people acted to help.

Ekman started the council with the help of Ward Patton, Shenendehowa High School principal; Bill Long of Saratoga County Mental Health; Betsy Davis of the council alcoholism services; and Assemblyman Bobby D’Andrea.

They initially used peer groups of older students to talk to young students about drug and alcohol use. The council later became a model for such groups throughout the state, as research confirmed that such prevention work helped keep teens away from substances.

It began attacking underage drinking and driving in 1983 as a reaction to car crash fatalities on prom and graduation nights. That program, Safe Spring, continues today.

Since the 1980s, schools have come to rely on the Prevention Council’s work.

“When we started 30 years ago, prevention wasn’t even on the map. Whereas now, you lose a program, DARE goes away, and our phone’s ringing off the hook,” Kisselback said.

The Saratoga Springs Police Department appreciates the council’s work, said Assistant Chief Greg Veitch.

“Whenever you’re talking about children and issues of substance abuse, kids that are at risk, the police department is really the last place those kids need to be,” he said.

But funding the programs for the Prevention Council’s $1.4 million budget has gotten tougher in the last few years, and the council’s Youth Court ended in December 2010 after its government funding was cut and the council patched together a budget for it for three years.

“Funding is an issue. Every time you turn around, it’s getting cut a little bit more here, a little bit more there,” Kisselback said. “We’re doing more fund raising now than we ever have … but every dime goes back into programming.”

The Saratoga County District Attorney’s Office and court system benefited by being able to turn some cases over to the Youth Court, she said. And students were often punished more stringently by their peers than a judge. Offenders then had to serve on a jury for a future offender.

“It was neat to watch,” she said. “They learned a lesson.”

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