A deafening silence filled the room when Community Action Coalition Project Director Dale Gillilan asked community leaders: “If we were to focus on one problem, what would it be?”
A dozen coalition members, representing various sectors of the central Kenai Peninsula community, were meeting in the Borough Building on Thursday in a focus group discussion on the Preventive Needs Assessment conducted in schools last winter and planned to be conducted again next fall.
Slowly an answer to Gillilan’s question began to materialize.
“Marijuana is by far the most (abused substance),” said Alaska State Trooper Peter Mlynarik.
“We have a little bit of (methamphetamine), a little Oxy (Contin); marijuana is the most ... by far the drug of choice,” the trooper said.
“In our needs assessment, the most common abused or used substance is alcohol,” said former hospital executive Paul Brenner of Kenai.
Mlynarik quickly agreed, saying he had been thinking more in terms of drug abuse than substance abuse.
Gillilan then asked where the coalition’s efforts should be focused.
Targeting a particular geographic area was ruled out.
“There’s only ... 20 miles distance between communities. We’re small ... one community,” Brenner said.
Responding to a suggestion that efforts focus on a particular type of family unit, Brenda Pilgrim Ahlberg, executive director of Boys and Girls Clubs of the Kenai Peninsula, said, “Forty-two percent of our members are single-parent families.”
Cheri Smith, executive director of the LeeShore Center, said, “A large number of our clients are from two-member relationships versus married couples.”
Gillilan added that many families in the central Kenai Peninsula area have one parent who works on the North Slope or on an offshore oil platform for a part of each month, and Jon Walters, pastor of Kenai Methodist Church of the New Covenant, said, “The poverty level in general is a mitigating factor as well.”
In addition to alcohol and drug abuse, coalition members discussed domestic violence.
“I don’t see violence a lot in our community,” said Brenner.
“We have our share of violence, it’s just not something that’s in your face all the time,” said Smith.
Mlynarik said comparing incidence of violent crime in western Alaska where he had been assigned previously to the Kenai Peninsula shows little crime here, to which he credited parental involvement as being the largest positive influence for young people.
When Gillilan asked what the first preventive action should be, Brenner said increased public awareness is where the coalition must start.
“We need to do a communitywide education program,” Brenner said.
Smith agreed, adding that the coalition needs to get parents involved in the development of an action plan.
“There’s a theme of education I keep hearing,” said Gillilan.
Alaska Public Health representative Regina Theisen said, rather than focusing efforts solely on schools, the group needs a “multifaceted approach.”
“Education is not the only answer,” said Assistant Schools Superintendent Sam Stewart.
“We’ve been educating on drugs and alcohol for years; it’s done some good, but the problem’s still here,” Stewart said.
“How do we get community support for what we’re going to do next?” asked Gillilan.
“First we have to know what the people are thinking,” said Smith.
In the next Prevention Needs Assessment, to be conducted in November, Kira Rodriguez of Central Peninsula Health Centers, said she would like to see more questions relating to domestic violence.
“Where is it happening? What is going on? What is being done? Is it parent against child, child against a brother, child against another friend?” she asked.
Smith cautioned that simply asking a child victim of domestic violence to answer those questions could put the child in a dangerous situation.
Gillilan asked if anything could be done to improve the response to the survey.
Forty percent of students participated in the survey conducted Feb. 22.
Schools that participated in the survey include Kenai Central, Nikiski, Skyview and Soldotna high, Kenai and Soldotna middle and Soldotna, Sterling, Tustumena, Redoubt, Kalifornsky Beach and Nikiski-North Star elementary schools.
The survey also was conducted at the Kenai Peninsula Youth Facility School, Aurora Borealis Charter School, Kenai Alternative School and Connections for home-schooled children.
Smith said, “Maybe we could go out through the agencies that work with children.”
Stewart said the coalition could consider working with the state Legislature to remove the mandatory parental permission requirement for their children to complete the assessment, but most agreed that would be a difficult sell.
Phil Hermanek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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