As indicated in our feature article, the heroin epidemic is a public health epidemic plaguing our communities and crippling our young people and their families. In Ontario County, Bonnie Ross, the Executive Director of the Partnership for Ontario County Inc.  which houses the Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition of Ontario County,  works diligently to combat the epidemic along with other issues faced by our youth today. Since her involvement in the organization, she has developed and initiated several new preventive programs paving the way for other counties to take heed and notice she is tip- toeing in the direction of winning the war!

This organization started in 1998. However, in response to the epidemic, since 2013 the programs expanded 86% based on the increased needs of the community. Currently, Bonnie indicated the organization serves 22% of the youth under 18 residing in the county. The goal of this program is to provide prevention as it relates to societal changes facing our youth today. The programs use a multi-disciplinary approach. There are a variety of program services including direct counseling services to youth and families.

Bonnie Ross, Executive Director for the Partnership, indicates: “it is with a great sense of purpose that we provide preventive and supportive services to youth and families, our highest priority.   We are grateful for the support of our community.  We are working together, learning together, and collaborating to share our resources, time, and talent to benefit those in need.”

Bonnie was recognized as a 2016 “Woman of Distinction” by the NYS Senate’s 55th District. Ross joined the Coalition in 2014, after retiring from Thompson’s Health executive team. Her dedication and commitment to the community is demonstrated daily by the leadership qualities she brought to this organization and the success of the initiatives she implemented.

Another leader within this Coalition is Deb Holland, who directs the Youth Court. She

also was recognized and awarded the “Paul Harris Fellow Award” from the local Rotary Club. Additionally, in 2016, Ontario County recognized the group awarding the “Choose Health Ontario Award” for the Partnership’s dedication to the community shown by supporting the youth and families of the County. This is an annual award recognizing efforts in health and wellness promotion.

The organization provides the following programs:  The Child Advocacy Center ( support services when sexual allegations are made including investigation ), Community Support Center, Drug-Free Communities, Family Support Centers ( counseling services to youth and families), Journey Through Loss (support group for people suffering loss related to drug abuse or mental health), Never Alone, Nowhere to Go (assistance for homeless), Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition of Ontario County, With Youth For Youth (WYFY) ( Youth assist in development of community activities), Youth Court (volunteer alternative to traditional juvenile justice)  and Youth and Mental Health First Aid ( national project to reduce stigmas surrounding mental health care). A variety of services are provided.

The Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition of Ontario County sets their vision as hoping for “a substance abuse –free Ontario County”.  This is the initiative addressing the necessary prevention factors to combat and win against substance abuse.  The organization and program prides itself on the services rendered and the impact of the work they are doing on the community. This important work has the expected outcome of saving lives.

Through engaging, informing and uniting people in the community, the group seeks to implement strategies accomplishing a reduction in medication and heroin abuse. The Coalition organizes community forums where information about the heroin epidemic is shared. They also set up medication take-back days so community members can discard unused or unwanted  medications safely reducing the number of drugs on the street. Part of this program includes medication drop boxes.

The Coalition is working on a four-year strategic prevention themed outlook focusing on drug abuse in the (12-25 year-old) population. Data is gathered using typical measuring tools such as surveys, focus groups and interviews. The conclusion the group modeled their work after, stemmed from gathering information from 2,000 youth in the age range. Through the community forums, additional information was gathered. The process is on-going and the Coalition members meet monthly continuing and adjusting their strategies based on the need and information gathered. Current strategies focus on restricting availability of prescription drugs by providing alternate disposal methods such as the drop box program and social marketing and take back programs.

Another interesting program to highlight is the Youth Court System. This program is a peer-based initiative which is a voluntary alternative to the juvenile justice system. In chosen misdemeanor and minor code of conduct cases, the youth court intervenes with the expected outcome of teaching new behaviors and coping skills to change the behavior of the offender and reduce any recidivism. The program educates youth about the criminal justice system while using community service and education to promote accountability for actions.

As an alternative for first-time offenders, this unique program also follows the perspective of reducing the negative stigma attached to youth going through the criminal justice. By using this alternative to incarceration, the youth are running the program and developing strategies to address youth issues. Participants learn great skills they will carry with them for a life-time including public speaking, leadership, how to mediate, solve problems and using critical thinking to make a difference.

Statistics show the program is working to reduce recidivism. The program saves the County money.  It gives way-ward youth a second chance to earn a clean slate. It positively changes the lives of the offenders and the youth who run the initiative. Prevention before something happens appears to be a large part of the solution we need to address the epidemics the youth of our day are faced with.

Bonnie Ross and the Partnership are pioneers tip-toeing in the direction of winning the war! The unique nature of these programs seem to provide some hope that there are answers to reduce the amount of children dying or going to prison as a result of this epidemic. Saving one life makes it worth it.