A Conversation with Michelle Wilks

Michelle Wilks - SAFE in Sag Harbor
SAFE in Sag Harbor and Sag Harbor Community Coalition Coordinator Michelle Wilks.
Michelle Wilks - SAFE in Sag Harbor
SAFE in Sag Harbor and Sag Harbor Community Coalition Coordinator Michelle Wilks.

The coordinator of the Sag Harbor Coalitoin/SAFE in Sag Harbor, talks about rebranding the organization, the Family Feud event at Bay Street next week, and why substance abuse is something all Sag Harbor families should be talking about.

By Kathryn G. Menu

The Sag Harbor Community Coalition has rebranded itself as SAFE in Sag Harbor. Why make the shift towards SAFE in Sag Harbor?

The Sag Harbor Coalition began as a grassroots movement in 2012, in reaction to indications that local youth were abusing substances and alcohol at a level in far excess of state and national averages. At the onset it was decided to adapt evidence-based strategies and in particular, the Strategic Prevention Framework model for community change. You may recall that the logo was a stick figure imbedded in the tag line Sag Harbor Coalition to Prevent Alcohol, Tobacco and Drug Use by Kids.

Coalition members felt that its public image should instantly convey a broader message of health and wellness that is supported by the community. Hence the new logo includes a variety of people moving along a continuum as they work “for a Substance- Abuse Free Environment” (SAFE) in Sag Harbor.

SAFE in Sag Harbor builds on the original Coalition goal of using proven strategies designed to engage all sectors of the Sag Harbor community in the common goal of creating a safer and healthier environment for all students including those who have engaged in high-risk decisions. A substantial part of SAFE’s mission is to continue to strengthen ties among youth, parents, local businesses, religious and fraternal orders, schools, media outlets, organizations serving youth, law enforcement, civic and volunteer groups, healthcare, government agencies and any other organizations willing to help further SAFE’s goals.

The Sag Harbor Coalition continues as the parent organization of Safe in Sag Harbor and continues to explore ways of providing additional services beyond the scope of the Drug-Free communities grant.

It was the group’s hope, as new energy from new parents and community members becoming involved, the new name would signify a starting point for us move forward in our community mobilization efforts.

Next Tuesday, SAFE will host its first community event, which will feature a Family Feud game show, but also a presentation on the results of surveys that measure drug and alcohol abuse locally. Can you highlight some of those results for community members?

Over the years the Sag Harbor Coalition has held numerous community events; Sticker Shock, 6 week Parent Education sessions, hosted a community town hall, co-hosted a naloxone training, prescription take bake event and information session. SAFE In Sag Harbor will continue to do so as well. There have been several surveys done in the past five years that strongly suggest that alcohol and substance abuse are a real problem in Sag Harbor, which our youth are using in numbers higher than other Long Island communities, the rest of the state and in some categories higher than the national average. In particular, the prevalence of alcohol and marijuana use are a cause for concern. Why? An individual’s brain is not fully developed until the age of 25 or so. Alcohol and marijuana are chemical substances that diminish brain development and can affect reasoning, cognitive development and social skills. Marijuana used had doubled from 2011 to 2014. Shockingly, 30% of the juniors and seniors in 2014 admitted to driving while under the influence of illicit drugs. As a community, the teens have told us in the surveys that they find Sag Harbor an easy place to get drugs (35%) and that the village has a favorable attitude (34%) towards drugs.

Our event on January 31 at the Bay Street Theater will not only be a forum for sharing the survey results but provide an opportunity for families to learn the facts together and develop the right strategies to value wellness in their own homes.

Another focus on the Coalition, or SAFE, has been to promote the Social Host law, which has criminalized the practice of parents allowing minors to drink at parties in their homes. Is this a problem we are seeing in Sag Harbor?

Most definitely. The proliferation of large teen drinking parties, some of which happen at the same houses on a regular schedule, is the biggest concern parents have expressed. First, let’s be clear as to what the law applies to. If a parent chooses to serve his/her own minor child alcohol in their own home while the parent is present with the minor, this act does not constitute a violation. However, if another unrelated teen is in the house and is served, or serves himself with the adult’s knowledge that is a violation of the Social Host law. The key criteria to be served with a Social Host Violation is: are the parents knowingly allowing underage drinking and not taking corrective actions when law enforcement intervenes.

One challenge in Sag Harbor is the number of law enforcement agencies that cover our school district and the different response they each have to minors drinking. One goal we would like to see over time is a unified response.

Well-meaning parents feel that youth are going to drink and they might as well make it safe. We know there is no such thing as safe drinking and the young developing brain is not a place for any outside substances. We hope to continue to educate and empower our parents and youth to help build a healthier community.

Anyone who has knowledge of a party or location where adults are permitting teens to drink can make an anonymous call to 866-UNDERAGE21. The call goes to the New York State Troopers who will log the call, contact the proper law enforcement agency and follow-up to be sure it the alert was responded to.

What are some of the warning signs a child or teen is abusing substance that parents can look out for?

There are many symptoms that a parent might observe. At times the changes might be subtle enough for you not to suspect substance abuse; this is when you need to become more observant to determine if it is a sign of something more serious or just a teenage behavior. The key thing to look for is a change. Period. If you sense something has changed err on the side of caution and pursue it.

There can be personality changes; increased secretiveness, irritability, a withdrawal from family, school and lack of interest in old hobbies and activities. He or she may seem to be fatigued or complain of not feeling well more than usual. Stimulant use can cause agitation, irritability and insomnia. Opioid users have extremely constricted pupils, may sweat profusely or appear to be frequently confused. Drowsiness, poor judgement and slurred speech is a sign of depressant use.

If you sense something has changed err on the side of caution and pursue it. You can consult with you physician, a counselor or have your child drug tested. It’s your parental right to look for drug paraphernalia in your child’s room. You could be saving their life.

This is one of the organization’s first events in 2017 — what else do you have planned for this year?

We adding new members every month and they have great ideas to make Sag Harbor an even better place to raise children. Parents are asking for the tools and skills to start meaningful dialogues about risky behaviors. The coalition is looking to develop a series of parent workshops that will be age appropriate for the child. The conversations with an eleven year old are very different than the ones had with a high school junior. Promoting the Social Host Law is equally important. The law was stiffened last year to make the second and subsequent violations a misdemeanor. The coalition will be working with our restaurants, bars and vendors on best practices to prevent minors being served or purchasing alcohol. Lastly we will be partnering with the PTSA and the Pierson administration to make this year’s prom and graduation activities safe, fun and memorable for all the right reasons.

For more information, visit facebook.com/SAFEinSagHarbor.