Sag Harbor Coalition Hopes to Change the Community Conversation on Substance Abuse

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Volunteers Benito Vila and Pierson High School senior Megan Beedenbender apply stickers to cases of beer inside the Sag Harbor Beverage store during the Sticker Shock program put on by the Sag Harbor Coalition of the Youth Resource Center, HUGS, Inc. and the Sag Harbor Police Department on Sunday, November 23. Photo by Michael Heller.
Volunteers Benito Vila and Pierson High School senior Megan Beedenbender apply stickers to cases of beer inside the Sag Harbor Beverage store during the Sticker Shock program put on by the Sag Harbor Coalition of the Youth Resource Center, HUGS, Inc. and the Sag Harbor Police Department on Sunday, November 23. Photo by Michael Heller.

By Tessa Raebeck

Rounding out its first year, the Sag Harbor Coalition remains determined to change the conversation about substance abuse on the East End. The group of parents, school officials and community experts formed in reaction to a 2010-11 survey that, among other findings, reported that students in Sag Harbor abuse alcohol and drugs more than the national average.

“We know, by and large, kids on the East End drink and drug higher than their peers,” Kym Laube, executive director of Human Understanding & Growth Services, or HUGS, a Westhampton Beach non-profit organization dedicated to alcohol and drug prevention, said on Tuesday.

East End minors are using substances more their peers on Western Long Island, in Suffolk County, in New York State, and in the nation, Ms. Laube said, adding the same results have been found by multiple data sources, including a survey conducted by Southampton Town.

There are many factors that contribute to why East End teens are drinking and using drugs more than those in towns across the country, said Ms. Laube, who co-chairs the coalition with Pierson administrator Barbara Bekermus.

“We live in this area that is based on tourism, with this kind of mindset of ‘Come party in the Hamptons,’” Ms. Laube said. “When they see all the adults socialize—[drinking is] the cornerstone of every social activity, from the advertising to the parties to the jet set scene to working in the industry, [and] parents working three, four jobs just to afford to live on the East End—all these different pieces come together and help paint this picture of why it is.”

Combined with minimal local resources for combating substance abuse and a lack of opportunities for positive social activities aside from youth-initiated parties, “all those things really become part of this puzzle,” she said.

The coalition recognizes the factors contributing to underage drinking and drug use on the East End are largely environmental, and thus began their grassroots, locally-led effort to combat the area’s social norms by pursuing community-wide change, rather than just lecturing to children,

“That’s all the coalition is hoping, that we can get people in the community out and involved, so we’re not serving alcohol to our kids, so that we’re providing alternatives to them and teaching them both by action and example that there are other alternatives,” said Benito Vila, who is a director of the coalition along with Sag Harbor parents Carol Kelleher and Thomas Ré.

“We do live in a resort community—our sense of normal is really, really twisted,” Mr. Vila said, adding the coalition is asking not just high school students, but the East End community as a whole, to change its behavior.

Last year, the coalition collaborated with HUGS and the Sag Harbor Village Police Department to bring “Sticker Shock” and “Two Forms of ID” programs to businesses that sell alcohol in Sag Harbor and Noyac.

The second installment of Sticker Shock occurred Sunday, November 23, when the group placed stickers on alcoholic beverages around town advising adults of the implications of buying alcohol for minors. Through its Two Forms of ID program, the coalition encourages local businesses to require two forms of ID, since minors using fake IDs rarely have two of them.

“We know if we are going to change youth behavior, we need to change community behavior and social norms,” said Ms. Laube. “And so the coalition has been working to begin to bring about education and clear, accurate information and programming to both parents and communities, to really begin to increase some of the protective factors and to reduce some of the risk factors associated with young people’s development.”

In collaboration with the Youth Resource Center, last year the coalition arranged for a teenage band to play at Bay Street Theater and for a “pizza and a movie” night at Conca D’Oro. It also helped organize a series of speakers for Pierson parents on substance abuse and advocated for the adoption of Sag Harbor schools’ new kindergarten through 12th grade life skills/safe decision-making curriculum, which includes a component on drugs and alcohol.

Although the programs are local, the coalition’s message is far-reaching: Underage substance use and abuse across all ages is a national health and safety issue.

“For the coalition to be effective, it really needs to raise the fact that it’s not about the law, it’s about common sense—it’s not healthy…It isn’t about your rights, it isn’t about the law, it’s about good community health, allowing our kids to succeed, empowering them, and giving them things to do that don’t involve alcohol,” said Mr. Vila.

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