Steele County Safe and Drug Free Coalition raises funds to help empower kids to make healthy choices –

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OWATONNA — Though the first day was more profitable — and considerably warmer — than the second, representatives from the Steele County Safe and Drug Free Coalition were still grateful for the opportunity to serve food in the Cash Wise booth this week.

This is the second year the coalition has been able to use the food stand, said Jessica Anderson, the vice president of the coalition’s steering committee.

“We’ve been busy,” she said.

Local organizations can petition to use the booth, splitting profits with Cash Wise, but “this fills up quick,” said Andi Gaffke, project coordinator for the coalition. Though cloudy, cool, and blustery conditions may have kept some potential customers away Thursday, overall “it’s been great.”

The plan is to use funds raised Wednesday and Thursday for a post-secondary scholarship for a student or students who have done prevention work, Gaffke said. The coalition began in 2009, and the current chairman is Keith Hiller, Owatonna’s chief of police.

“It is a pretty easy choice to be part of a coalition that loves our kids so much,” Hiller said. “They dedicate their time and efforts to empower kids to be healthy.”

The coalition is especially focused on prevention with youth, since 90 percent of Americans with a substance abuse problem started smoking, drinking, or using other drugs before age 18, Gaffke said. That means if youth can be kept away from illicit substances until 18, they’re much more likely to avoid addiction later in life.

In Steele County in 2016, 10 percent of eighth-graders reported drinking an alcoholic beverage at least once in the past month, while the state average among eighth graders was under 8 percent, according to the coalition’s website. However, fewer Steele County high school freshmen and juniors were drinking than the state average in 2016, with 9 percent of local freshmen and 24 percent of local juniors reporting imbibing in a given month against 11 percent and 25 percent, respectively, for state averages.

With only 10 percent of eighth graders in the county using alcohol over the 30-day period in question, that means 90 percent are abstaining, so “most of our youth are choosing a healthy lifestyle,” Hiller said. The brain is under construction until the age of 25, “and substance abuse can severely impact a life.”

“It can negatively impact overall health, academic achievement, athletic performance, sleep, mental health, (and) employment,” Hiller added. Furthermore, “it can lead to domestic violence, crime, unemployment, and worse — death.”

The county had less encouraging numbers on tobacco use, with 5 percent of eighth graders and 14 percent of juniors locally smoking over a 30-day period juxtaposed with 4 percent of eighth graders across the state and 8 percent of juniors, according to the coalition. Fewer Steele County freshmen — 3 percent — were smoking in a 30-day period than the state average of 4 percent.

Fewer Steele County teens and adolescents were abusing prescription medications or using marijuana in a 30-day snapshot than the state average, according to the coalition. Only 7 percent of Steele County youth in grades 8, 9, and 11 were using marijuana — that number was 9 percent for the state average — and only 3 percent of Steele County students in those aforementioned grades reported abusing prescription drugs, contrasted with a state average of 5 percent.

Fortunately, Steele County has also so far avoided falling prey to the opioid crisis that has gripped several areas of the country in recent years and decimated numerous rural towns, Gaffke said.

“We want to keep it that way,” she said.

Every day, more than 90 Americans die after overdosing on opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “This issue has become a public health crisis with devastating consequences.”

The Steele County Safe and Drug Free Coalition plans to get more involved with Red Ribbon Week Oct. 23-31 this year, perhaps having a bonfire for teenagers, and they’ll conduct a Know the Truth symposium in the Owatonna High School auditorium Nov. 15 geared toward parents, Gaffke said. The focus of the November event will be “on prevention, education, and general awareness.”

“We are always looking for folks to get more engaged” in the battle against substance abuse, Gaffke said. Individuals don’t necessarily have to make a long-term commitment, either, as the coalition has several “short-term action teams.”

Anderson first joined the coalition six years ago because she’s “interested in helping keep youth on track,” she said. “We want to give them the opportunity to make good choices and follow them through.”

“I am so proud of the coalition and its members,” Hiller said. “A group that empowers youth to choose a chemical-free lifestyle can make one of the biggest impacts on a community and today’s youth.”

The coalition is currently funded by a Drug Free Communities Grant through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) — a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — and The United Way of Steele County assisted in writing the original grant application and continues to serve as fiscal agent for the coalition, Gaffke said. “We want to stay around in the community and be present for years to come.”

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