On the surface, Sag Harbor might not fit the description of a place in need of a youth substance abuse prevention program. The small village, and the other East End villages and hamlets surrounding it, mostly have a reputation for wholesomeness, affluence, and community engagement.
But substance abuse issues, especially among youth, often don’t discriminate, and there are other factors that make the area, and the children and teens who live there, even more susceptible to those kinds of issues.
That’s why for the past five years, the anti-drug coalition known as “SAFE in Sag Harbor” has been hard at work to protect its most vulnerable community members. The group comprises community members from all walks of life, including parents, teachers, members of law enforcement, business owners, and even students themselves, engaged together in an effort to reduce and prevent substance abuse among teens. SAFE (which stands for Substance Abuse Free Environment) was awarded a federal grant five years ago to carry out its mission of implementing environmental changes and encouraging healthy alternative choices using evidence-based strategies, and the group received good news recently that it has been awarded a federal grant once again, which will allow it to continue and expand what it does for another six to 10 years.
In a celebratory Zoom call with task force members and others in the community on December 15, SAFE in Sag Harbor’s program director, Kym Laube, shared the good news about the $125,000 grant, and spoke about what the coalition has done and is planning for the future. She elaborated on much of what she discussed in a separate interview a few days later, speaking first about why SAFE is so crucial for communities on the East End of Long Island, like Sag Harbor.
“Because of tourism, and the fact that we’ve always had this ‘party in the Hamptons’ theme, our alcohol density sale is higher than it is in a lot of places,” she said “That’s not just the case in Sag Harbor; it’s the entire East End. But the forward-thinking mentality in Sag Harbor created a willingness to say, ‘Let’s do something about this.’”
The core belief of SAFE is that “doing something” requires buy-in from the entire community, not just parents and educators in the school system.
“This grant is about bringing together community leaders through a data-driven process that includes assessment, planning, implementation and evaluation,” Ms. Laube said.
“We’re not just saying, ‘We think this is a good thing to do.’ We’re actually rolling up our sleeves and learning about nuances in the community that impact substance use disorder.”
SAFE focuses on three areas that impact substance use disorder, Ms. Laube said: youth access to alcohol, parental permission for young people to use alcohol, and favorable attitudes toward alcohol or marijuana use.
The coalition tries to educate parents about their role in substance use among teens, talking to them about the legal trouble they can find themselves in if they host parties with underage drinking in their homes, for instance.
The group also tries to engage business and restaurant owners in using better techniques for ID’ing underage teens trying to buy alcohol, posting signs at restaurants or at big community events like Harborfest and Harborfrost.
Narcan trainings for law enforcement, coordination with schools on teaching life skills programs, and parenting classes are other ways that SAFE has tried to offer its services to help reduce youth substance abuse and raise awareness around the problem.
It’s all part of the larger goal of making the community aware of the dangers of substance use for young children and teens, and how it can adversely affect them for the rest of their lives.
“Ninety percent of anyone with addiction began using in their teen years,” Ms. Laube said. “Their brains still haven’t fully developed.”
Ms. Laube said she is thrilled to have the renewed grant, adding it gives SAFE a chance to continue its work and expand its reach. The first order of business will be hiring a new program coordinator, who will work with the SAFE leadership board and sector members to enhance what SAFE does. Ms. Laube is hoping SAFE can find continuity in that role, as the four previous program coordinators have had to move on for various reasons.
“We want to continue to provide information and raise awareness, reducing opportunities for young people to access alcohol, and build protectors around the sale of marijuana,” Ms. Laube said, pointing out the group is anticipating the legalization of marijuana in New York at some point in the near future. “We just want to make everyone aware, because this is about all of us. These kids are all our kids.”
Up next for SAFE is a meeting in January, where Ms. Laube said the group will discuss the reduction in substance abuse the town has seen over the last five years, which Ms. Laube said is due, at least in part, to the work SAFE has done in the community. SAFE hired an outside evaluator to conduct surveys of youth in the Sag Harbor School District, and also relied on data collected by the state that shows use trending down and protective factors trending up.
Ms. Laube added that the work SAFE does is more important than ever, as the global pandemic is rapidly approaching its one-year anniversary in the country.
“We really know that the fallout of COVID-19 is an increase in substance abuse disorder and an increase in suicide, and we want to build in a many protective factors and support as we can,” she said.
Ms. Laube doesn’t see the coronavirus pandemic in an entirely negative light, however.
“One of the positive outcomes of all of this is that it’s made it OK to not be OK,” she said. “People feel a little more comfortable reaching out for help. We just have to make sure that help is there.”