New program focuses on how to help teens

A new Cambria County program is looking not only at what’s going wrong in teens’ lives, but at what schools, parents and churches are doing right to curb bad choices – and how the community can better support them.

The Cambria County Prevention Coalition, an initiative of the county’s Health and Welfare Council, uses data to determine how to curb alcohol and drug use, delinquency and violence.

Last September, its steering committee was formed, then a board of leaders was formed in February. The coalition adopted its model to implement changes last month.

Survey data show fewer middle-school-age kids are drinking alcohol, according to a 2013 survey completed using data from more than 4,000 middle and high school students in all Cambria County school districts. But the number of kids in high school trying alcohol has doubled.

And two in every five seniors in Cambria County admitted to drinking regularly last year.

Chairwoman Paula Eppley-Newman said the coalition uses the survey as a tool to gauge what’s going on in the area, although it’s “not the gospel,” she said.

So far, local leaders have learned that underage drinking and drug use hasn’t gotten worse year-to-year, despite people believing it has.

“But we may be seeing a shift in age ranges. Our area has always been a drinking area. That’s always been a given,” she said. “That seemed to be the choice, because it’s easily accessible. But we’re seeing a spike and maybe some drug use as they get older.”

Ebensburg Borough Police Chief Terry Wyland said it’s true that things are changing.

“We don’t seem to see the big parties out in the woods anymore. We seem to have smaller house parties,” he said.

Some teens responding to the school survey claimed parents knew, supported or even participated in parties, but Wyland said police have yet to encounter such a case.

“I hear sometimes parents allow them, sometimes they don’t. We’ve never been able to track one down,” he said. “Usually parents are not at home.”

But he said area youth have changed their tactics, and now police and the community have to, as well.

Eppley-Newman said school programs are especially useful in curbing deviant behavior, as evidenced by the drop in smoking.

“Schools are doing a really good job,” she said, which is evident when looking at the school survey; every school in Cambria County, including parochial schools, participated.

An all-volunteer effort, the coalition is supported by numerous agencies across the county, including the Learning Lamp, Goodwill and Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center, as well as County Commissioner Thomas Chernisky and local police.

Chernisky said previous efforts to control drug and alcohol abuse and other destructive behaviors have been less successful, but coalition members and county agencies have learned from those programs. Everyone seems to be on the same page now, and they see the value in this new mission.

He said coalition members are listening to what kids are saying, and many have found out – and some have been surprised to learn – that students enjoy school and extracurriculars, but some find participation difficult. Agencies can use what they’ve learned to make reaching out and getting students involved easier.

He said they can make changes in real time, rather than making plans to be implemented years from now.

“We’re trying to help them now so 10 years from now, we can look back and say, ‘We made a difference,'” he said.

The Penn State EPISCenter – a prevention and intervention support program – provides technical support so the council can properly implement its model to improve teens’ lives – preventing health and behavioral problems, reducing dropout and teen pregnancy rates, as well as curbing drug and alcohol abuse.

And more supportive coalitions may be coming. When some local leaders saw the response to a Sunday killing of a local police academy student in Johnstown, it gave them the idea of forming to support hope in the area.

While it’s Johnstown-based for now, Eppley-Newman said, other similar coalitions may spread.

“The beauty of what we are all doing is there’s no funding for this whatsoever. All the agencies are putting their people in this … because they believe in the community,” she said.

The coalition’s next meeting is scheduled for 8 a.m. Aug. 12 at the Ebensburg Senior Center.

Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520.