Prevention Task Force assesses Block Island's needsHolds community forum
For some time, the island has grappled with the question, “What do we need in terms of dealing with drug and alcohol abuse, or mental health in general?’ The Block Island Prevention Task Force (BIPTF) has been working toward answers for 25 years now.
Some of those answers were forthcoming during a presentation sponsored by BIPTF at the 1661 Inn last Thursday, March 20. Nancy DeNuccio of the North Kingston Prevention Task Force and Narragansett Consulting, was joined by Jill Seppa of BIPTF, to give a presentation that provided the community with findings that had been prepared by DeNuccio. They summarized the goals of Block Island’s Prevention Task Force based on the needs of the community. The event also was an opportunity to ask more island residents for their input.
“We wanted to have a discussion with community members, and this [event] is one way to do that. We don’t want to provide something that nobody is going to use,” Seppa said.
DeNuccio and Seppa reported that BIPTF is due to receive a federal grant from the Strategic Prevention Framework Partnership for Success in June that could be as much as $100,000. The final number is unknown, and is to be partially determined by the findings of DeNuccio’s needs assessment. In addition to determining the amount of funding BIPTF is qualified to receive, part of the reasoning behind the needs assessment is to determine the best possible allocation of the funds once they arrive.
Seppa began the presentation with a goals statement and overview of the Prevention Task Force’s efforts in the community. The goals of BIPTF, also known as the Drug and Alcohol Abuse Prevention Task Force, are to “offer drug and alcohol free activities, support, and education,” according to Seppa.
Seppa also highlighted some of the more prominent programs BIPTF coordinates on Block Island. Among those are Roots and Wings, the Parenting Support Group, and The Summer Safety Program. The Roots part of Roots and Wings is a program for Block Island School sixth graders to “connect to their roots, learn more about the island, each other and their families,” and Wings is a three-day trip to New York City for the eighth graders to “see a little more of the world and learn about possibilities for them in their lives,” as described by Seppa.
The Parenting Support Group is a well-attended group of parents to help others with their struggles of being a parent and support them in their challenges. The Summer Safety Program is a collaboration with the New Shoreham Police Department to help kids understand risks and dangers of summer on Block Island.
Seppa introduced DeNuccio as “an expert” who has “been in the prevention and wellness fields for many years,” and said she had contacted DeNuccio to help the BIPTF because they needed some “guidance and support.”
DeNuccio began her presentation with some statistics from the Department of Behavioral Health, citing a study which showed a decline in alcohol use among high school students throughout much of Rhode Island. According to her research, an important exception to that was New Shoreham, where use rates have increased since 2000. She conceded that sample size was small and that exact figures may be difficult to discern, but as one attendee said, “It’s still an increase and a cause for concern.”
As part of her study, DeNuccio had conducted 12 one-on-one interviews with island residents, conducted three focus groups, and reviewed data and minutes from 2013 Block Island meetings since the tragedies last spring when a young man of 21 died of a drug overdose and another island resident committed suicide. She discussed the challenges of being able to accurately study Block Island compared to communities on the mainland. “Block Island is very different. You can’t just look at one aspect and get an accurate assessment,” she said.
DeNuccio went on to highlight and explain important areas of her 18-page community assessment report. The first was a summary of risk factors for Block Island residents in succumbing to drug and alcohol abuse or mental illness. She listed isolation, a lack of services, and a permissive culture as the main risk factors.
“Tribalism was a word I heard over and over,” DeNuccio said, speaking of risk factors. On the other hand, DeNuccio labeled the small, close-knit community where everyone knows each other as an important protective factor. “Protective factors are something we’d want to bolster,” she said.
DeNuccio went on to describe some of the charactaristics of Block Island she found during her study. The first thing she noticed was the large role that alcohol plays in the Block Island culture. “The youth are exposed to that, and when I talked to them they self-report alcohol and marijuana use and with impunity,” she said.
“I’m not against drinking. My husband owns a liquor store,” DeNuccio said. However, when talking about the idea that kids are all smoking and drinking and that it’s okay, she said Block Island “doesn’t need to wear that badge.”
DeNuccio mentioned the under-utilization of Shannon Morgan, the Student Assistance Councilor at the school, and that she is a valuable asset to the students. In talking to Seppa later, she said “the school has been really including her a lot more this year and it’s a nice shift, but she can be better utilized if the school administration would encourage the teachers to have her in every classroom at least once a month to approach each age group around drug and alcohol prevention.”
Throughout her presentation, DeNuccio’s common theme was that parents and adults need to make sure they are good role models, and that an issue on Block Island is how age-diverse groups of friends are on the island. The fact that young kids have some much older friends and are being introduced to drugs and alcohol at a young age is one of the risk factors that DeNuccio mentioned.
The floor was then opened up to attendees for discussion and suggestions.
The majority of comments were based on the island’s need for a recreational facility, and concerns about feelings of isolation, as Seppa had noted earlier. “Alcohol use is pervasive in every part of the culture here,” said Elizabeth Holmes, a member of the BIPTF. Others raised concerns about the lack of opportunities on Block Island for young people to expand their horizons. Second Warden Ken Lacoste had some things to say in response to those sentiments.
“Community services are more spread out here, but I think they exist. You just have to pick the fruit from different trees,” Lacoste said. He also felt that there were opportunities on the island, but aren’t utilized. “Sometimes the horizon is right in front of you,” he said.
Annie Hall, a member of the School Committee, said, “There is no doubt in my mind there’s not enough here.” She mentioned that she misses the gym across from Yellow Kittens. “There were people in there all the time, all year round,” Hill said.
Gary Pollard, owner of the Empire Theater, recalled he had proposed showing movies at the school during the off season, but was “flabberghasted” when he found resistance.
Seppa intervened in the conversation with thoughts that leaned more toward solutions than challenges. One of the things she mentioned was simply better use of local workers. She said “there are lots of ads in the paper about part-time this and part-time that. An effort should be made to combine those into one position, possibly with help from the grant.”
At the the close of the event, Seppa reminded those in attendance of the overall purpose of the event, which was the prospective grant and how it would be allocated. DeNuccio said the grant will be “very prescriptive and should be out by the end of the fiscal year.”
“One of the most important things about the grant,” DeNuccio said, “Is the partnership development to try to improve the community in certain areas.”
Chief of Police Vincent Carlone had something to say about the island. He said he’s been impressed by the kids on Block Island, and that “they all look me in the eye and shake my hand. Something is going remarkably well here.”
“I think that’s a good note to end on,” DeNuccio said. Seppa announced two future BIPTF meetings, which are open to the public, on April 8 and May 6. Both meetings are at 4:15 p.m. at the Harbor Church. She thanked DeNuccio for her work and for her presentation, which was followed by a round of applause.
Between 30 and 40 islanders attended the event. Seppa told those who gathered at the 1661 that the number of attendees “speaks to what a beautiful community we have, full of caring people.”