Youth leaders ADAPT to a healthier way of life

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ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — Heading into summer vacation, many parents and guardians become concerned with how their children will fill their time. Unstructured time can be dangerous, especially for teenagers who may have access to drugs or alcohol. Luckily, Essex County parents and guardians can count on ADAPT to help them steer their children in the right direction.

ADAPT, the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Team, is a coalition that works to reduce underage drinking and drug abuse in Essex County. Administered by FAMILYConnections, ADAPT is composed of youth, parents and guardians, educators, police, substance abuse professionals, faith leaders and government representatives.

“We empower youth leaders and community members and collaborate with community partners to improve education and awareness as it relates to substance use and abuse, while also advocating for local and countywide programmatic and policy changes,” ADAPT Coalition manager Joel Torres said in a recent email interview. “We provide information through parent presentations, student athlete brochures, public service announcements, report on data collection — i.e., student surveys — and more. We help to enhance skills of our members and stakeholders by hosting trainings on substance abuse, public health and prevention topics.”

But that’s not all; Torres said that ADAPT also provides support through alternative programs for local youth and creates physical reminders of the laws regarding substance abuse and the effects of ignoring them.

“We also help to change the physical design of neighborhoods by creating signage to put on schools and through community to educate residents on various substance use/abuse topics,” Torres said. “For example, we have a campaign where we educate the public on the fact that under the NJ Smoke-Free Air Act, you cannot use electronic smoking devices — i.e., electronic cigarettes, vape pens that emit liquid marijuana — in public settings.”

Additionally, ADAPT works to modify and change existing policies regarding substance abuse, such as working with schools to craft a code that addresses issues like electronic smoking devices on school grounds and assisting police in practicing increased prescription medicine take-back initiatives.

“While FAMILYConnections delivers treatment services for both adults and teens struggling with addictions, our ADAPT program works to prevent drug and alcohol abuse from happening in the first place,” FAMILYConnections Executive Director Jacques Hryshko said recently via email. “What makes ADAPT so successful is that it’s a true coalition of many partners — from local police and municipal alliances and school personnel to concerned parents and youth leaders — all working together to stop underage drinking and drug abuse right here in our community.”

According to Torres, ADAPT complements the substance abuse prevention initiatives already under way in the county’s 22 municipalities. He pointed out that, while some of ADAPT’s local partners may only have resources to tackle one type of substance abuse, ADAPT can then step in and cover areas previously neglected.

“With the increase in heroin-related overdoses and a decrease in prevention funding, collaborative efforts and effective use of resources goes a long way to ensure that we can save as many lives as possible in our county,” Torres said. “We find gaps in services and provide new opportunities for youth to participate and make a difference in their communities. One example of this is our initiative with youth leaders in different areas of Essex County. In 2014, several teenagers from East Orange contacted us and stated that they did not have peer leadership opportunities in their school. We worked with them to develop a countywide youth leadership program that would focus on preventing substance use and abuse in their local areas. After three years, we’ve worked with over 95 youths from several towns, including but not limited to East Orange, Millburn, Livingston, Maplewood, West Orange and Montclair.”

The youth leaders who work with ADAPT receive specialized training, which prepares them to effectively plan and implement anti-substance abuse initiatives in their communities.

“One example of this is a sticker shock campaign, where youth collaborate with local law enforcement and businesses to put stickers on cases of alcohol and posters in liquor stores with messaging to prevent the purchase of alcohol for minors,” Torres said. “Another example is a prom/graduation public service announcement with a message to help prevent underage drinking and drunken driving from taking place before, during and/or after prom and graduation.”

As part of the sticker-shock campaign, in April, youth leaders went to three South Orange liquor stores — University Liquors on South Orange Avenue, A&D Liquors on Valley Street and Wine Emporium on Valley Street — and added signage. All the stores were enthusiastic in their participation. The stickers placed in the stores had a warning message stating that purchasing alcohol for minors can lead to up to six months in prison.

“The posters and stickers that were displayed throughout the stores served as a constant reminder to customers about the consequences related to purchasing alcohol for minors,” Torres said, adding that, in total, ADAPT has provided 700 stickers within Essex County community.

Though ADAPT only launched four years ago, it has been busy and has had numerous successes.

According to Torres, he was concerned to learn in 2012 that Essex County only had two prescription medication disposal sites. But ADAPT refused to let that stand and got to work, ensuring that everyone in Essex County would have access to a safe disposal method for unwanted medicines.

“Many coalition members focused their efforts in expanding this program throughout the past four years. Through our efforts, we’ve been able to increase the number of drop boxes in the county to 15 out of the 21 towns, with two new ones set to launch in fall 2017,” Torres said. “The current locations include the following towns that launched during the past 18 months are East Orange, Irvington, Montclair, Fairfield, West Orange, and Nutley. All locations received a waiver from the Drug Enforcement Administration and are in compliance with all DEA requirements.”

The permanent prescription drug collection locations, which are open year-round, are: Belleville Police Department, 152 Washington Ave.; Bloomfield Police Department, 1 Municipal Plaza; Caldwell Police Department, 1 Provost Square; East Orange Police Department, 15 South Munn Ave.; Fairfield Police Department, 230 Fairfield Road; Glen Ridge Police Department, 3 Herman St.; Irvington Police Department, 1 Civic Square; Livingston Police Department, 333 South Livingston Ave.; Millburn Police Department, 435 Essex St.; Montclair Police Department, 647 Bloomfield Ave.; Newark Police Department, 480 Clinton Ave.; North Caldwell Police Department, 136 Gould Ave.; Nutley Police Department, 228 Chestnut St.; Orange Police Department, 29 Park St.; and West Orange Police Department, 60 Main St.

“Some of the most dangerous substances in your home are the unused prescription and over-the-counter medication in your bathroom closet. Youth may sneak pills and use them out of curiosity, but there is a real danger that this could lead to more severe drug abuse,” Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo said in a past press release. “Ridding your homes of unused prescription medication and dangerous drugs is a simple and important safety measure we can all take. Using the collections sites ensures your unwanted pills are not used improperly and will be destroyed in an environmentally friendly manner.”

In a similar vein, ADAPT works with many partners to host localized prescription medication take-back events for seniors, during which seniors are educated about the dangers of medication misuse and improper disposal.

“This innovative program empowers senior citizens to get actively involved in prevention initiatives by going to where they are at rather than having the expectation that senior citizens can come to the police department to dispose of their old or unused medication,” Torres said.

Other achievements include the hosting of the second Essex County Interfaith Symposium in October 2016 with the county’s Division of Community Health Services and the prosecutor’s office, at which faith leaders were given information. This event was held to further ADAPT’s goal to expand prevention efforts in faith-based communities.

“Approximately 102 faith-based leaders and members and professionals attended the event where we had five speakers discuss several topics such as mental health, overall health and wellness, New Jersey’s Faith in Prevention state program, and substance abuse prevention,” Torres said.

Lastly, Torres highlighted a PSA made by youth leaders from Orange and East Orange, with assistance from students at Seton Hall University in South Orange. While the PSA is already available online, ADAPT is working with school districts and municipalities to have it shown to a wider audience.

Even with these many successes, ADAPT shows no signs of slowing down, or of resting on its laurels.

“Moving forward, we hope to expand our collaboration to include different partners and groups in the county, including local business owners from bars, restaurants and liquor stores, media outlets that can help get our prevention messaging out to a broader audience, family members/friends of someone with a personal history of addiction who want a positive outlet to effectuate change, and other individuals in Essex County who would like to prevent the use and abuse of drugs and alcohol,” Torres said.

“In addition, we look forward to expanding the work we do with our current partners and stakeholders, for example working to build our youth leadership groups to be inclusive of all towns in the county and working with faith-based communities in order to expand our prevention network and increase prevention and support messaging that gets out to their respective communities and stakeholders. We believe that this will help us achieve our goal of reducing underage drinking and drug abuse in Essex County.”

For more information on ADAPT and substance use and abuse prevention, visit