Kutztown Strong enacts strong relationship between school district, university, community

Rear: Dr. John Conahan, Associate Professor Dept. of Social Work, Chair of Institute of Addiction Studies; Center left to right: Sheryl McKlveen, BSW, Kutztown Strong Community Mobilizer; Dr. Yasoda Sharma, Assistant Professor Dept. of Social Work and Institute member; Dr. Chelsea Toth, Assistant Professor Dept. of Social Work and Institute member; Professor Bill Bender, ACSW, LSW, Instructor/Field Director Dept. of Social Work and Institute member; Merry Schegel, Kutztown Strong Board member. Front: Dr. Fang-Hsun Wei, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Social Work and Institute member. Missing from photo: Dr. Sharon Lyter, Professor Dept. of Social Work, KU DSW Program Director, and Institute member.

Kutztown Strong is a local non-profit organization operating in the Kutztown area to combat youth substance abuse behaviors for the health and well-being of their community. Having developed strong relationships with both the Kutztown Area School District and Kutztown University, they continue their work to address the most prevalent substance abuse issues in their community.

The organization encourages volunteerism and connecting with other local affiliates to maximize the use of existing resources in creating innovative solutions for this national social problem.

Kutztown Strong recently received their fourth consecutive grant. The $60,000 Substance Abuse Education and Demand Reduction (SAEDR) grant is meant to help sustain grassroots coalitions with a mission to prevent youth substance abuse behaviors by giving them time to grow, mature, and take independent root in the community.

“Kutztown Strong is such an important part of our community,” said George Fiore, Kutztown Area School District Superintendent. “They provide avenues for our students to avoid some of those destructive decisions through healthy, age-appropriate activities. Kutztown Strong has developed numerous after-school activities and educational programs for our students.”

After heroin overdoses affected the area more than three years ago, community members met to discuss the situation. Through the leadership of then KASD superintendent Kathy Metrick and collaborative efforts with the Berks County Council on Chemical Abuse, this core group of people went on to create the non-profit organization and apply for their first grant to hire a part-time staff.

Andrew Brett is president of Kutztown Strong as well as a school counselor for Kutztown Area High School. According to Brett, Kutztown Strong includes member volunteers from sectors of the community that include local business owners, law enforcement, school officials, health care providers, other local non-profit agencies, as well as college, high school, and middle school students.

Kutztown Strong’s goals include the implementation of research informed programs for grades K–12 to help youth make healthy, informed decisions, provide quality youth and parent education, and raise public awareness. Kutztown Strong also developed its own student survey, which is disseminated biannually to determine whether program and implementation efforts have altered youth behaviors to reduce and refrain from using drugs.

The coalition welcomes involvement from all areas of Kutztown University, though the relationship is in particular with KU’s Department of Social Work, Chaired by Dr. John Vafeas, the Department of Social Work is an invaluable asset in ascertaining the effectiveness of the coalition’s work. To date, six faculty from the department have volunteered to work alongside the coalition, under the auspices of the Institute of Addiction Studies, to evaluate coalition data and help them meet their goals.

“One part of the Department of Social Work’s strategic objectives is to be relevant to the community as opposed to just teaching theory and being one dimensional,” said Dr. John Conahan, Chair of the Institute of Addiction Studies and consultant to Kutztown Strong Board of Directors. “One of the ways we do that is the development of institutes within the department, which has to do with the needs of the community and the expertise of the faculty. In this particular case, we have the Addictions Institute. The Addictions Institute is designed to provide a forum for faculty and students to develop and practice research but also develops opportunities through collaborative partnerships with academic departments, community organizations, and service providers in developing programs, training, and research that will advance the addiction treatment field. “

According to Conahan, Kutztown Strong fits the mission of the Institute of Addiction Studies “perfectly.”

“Through collaboration, we managed to bring this all together,” said Conahan. “It was a natural progression; it’s a perfect fit of mission, vision and values.”

Dr. Fang-Hsun Wei serves on the Institute for Addiction Studies.

“It is a great opportunity for Kutztown University and Kutztown Strong to work together to identify their community specific substance abuse issues and discover solutions,” said Wei. “As a social worker and a researcher, I am willing to work within our community to deal with this problem and help the community to meet their needs!”

Collaborating with the Institute of Addiction Studies helps to direct the meaningful work of this grassroots community coalition.

“In order to apply for grants, you need data to tell you what the community specific problems are and then you need to start implementing programs to effect positive change on those problems,” said Sheryl McKlveen, Community Mobilizer Kutztown Strong, Kutztown University Master of Social Work candidate, and graduate of the Bachelor of Social Work program at KU. “Then your programs need to be evaluated to tell you whether or not you are going in the right direction. In partnering with the Department of Social Work and its Institute of Addiction Studies we gain the ability and help in evaluating our programs for impact, efficiency and effectiveness that would not have otherwise been possible.”

Data drives targeted, efficient, and effective use of the coalition’s work and resources. One source of data collection is the Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS) which is administered in the school districts across the state of Pennsylvania in each odd numbered calendar year to youth in grades 6, 8, 10 and 12 with data analysis completed free of charge by the Commonwealth. The district’s first participation in the state survey was in 2013, they continued that participation in 2015, and intend to take part again in 2017.

In the interest of justice, and to give voice to every child in the district, the coalition set a goal to take responsibility for administering the survey independent of the state in even numbered calendar years.

With the school board’s approval, the coalition successfully administered a 2016 survey which will give continuity and consistency to local youth substance use patterns and trends. Faculty volunteers from Kutztown University’s Department of Social Work, Institute of Addiction Studies are providing that data analysis which is necessary to fill in the information gaps.

The data is shared between the coalition and the KASD, who work to develop programs to suit the needs of the students.

“That data is invaluable because we can develop targeted programming,” said Fiore. “It’s just a wonderful connection and resource that most school districts are not able to access.”

The data from the surveys is then passed to the Institute of Addiction Studies at KU, who interprets the raw data.

Approximately 18 months after the anniversary of Kutztown Strong’s organization, survey participants had changed attitudes with a 17 percent decline in youth attitudes favorable to their peers’ use of drugs. The surveys also showed a 4 percent decline in their own attitudes towards drug use from 36 percent in 2013 to 32 percent in 2015, and a 2 percent decline in their perceptions of adult attitude of drug use from 33 percent in 2013 to 31 percent in 2015.

Encouraged by these findings, the coalition will now target efforts more specifically on community underage and binge drinking norms and behaviors through projects to raise awareness and provide accurate information to both area adults and youth.

Additionally, an Environmental Listening survey of area adults, conducted by Kutztown Strong board of directors, found parents, guardians and caregivers requesting additional education to enhance their understanding of the topic of alcohol/drug use behaviors in youth among the top four problems within the adult service population.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board grant that Kutztown Strong has recently applied for would help the coalition reach parents with additional resources for education and awareness events that address the problem of youth substance abuse in the area.

In order to sustain itself, the coalition needs both funds and staff. Sheryl McKlveen was hired as a paid intern to help the coalition organize and connect resources in the community.

According to McKlveen, there are certain jobs that are hard to navigate on a volunteer basis; the SAEDR grant will help them sustain a part-time staff position for two more years.

“There are particular areas that you want to cover when you are focused on substance abuse prevention. One of those areas is to make sure that you have fun, healthy activities available to the kids,” said McKlveen.

According to McKlveen, KU’s fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE), helps with much of the organization and planning of those activities. This is just one example of the type of community involvement that Kutztown Strong visualizes.

“We have 24 varying relationships with the university that varies from hosting student teachers and interns to collaborative grant writing,” said Fiore, who also teaches at KU. “I think it’s important that our relationship is strong because we serve the community in so many ways.”

University students sit on the board of Kutztown Strong.

“When you involve multiple generations, you get more innovation,” said McKlveen. “Bringing all those minds and those age groups together, they gain a little expertise from us because we have been in the working world for a long time. Yet, they give us different ways of thinking about community specific social problems in the context of being a young person in today’s environment. It’s difficult to tell what that world is like from another person’s perspective, what attitudes might differ, and why.”

Kutztown Strong also serves as a way for university students to practice their own professionalism. In the past, KU students have reached out to Kutztown Strong asking to become involved for senior seminar projects, such as two Spring 2017 Communications and Media graduates designing a parent section for the coalition’s website.

Kutztown University President Dr. Kenneth Hawkinson provided some examples of the symbiotic relationship that Kutztown Strong has developed between the town, school district and the university.

According to Hawkinson, Des Reasoner, Director of Kutztown University Residence Life has been volunteering with her student staff, alongside one of the board members, every Wednesday evening to bring fun after school activities to the children living in the Highland Estates development; two KU students serve on the Kutztown Strong board, an education major and a communications and media major.

In addition, Kutztown Strong has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the university in hopes of taking on one or two interns interested in non-profit leadership, organizational development, and community building practice skills pending the outcome of their recent application for the PLCB grant.

“We instill in our students from their first day on campus, the importance of a responsible citizen on campus and in the community,” said Hawkinson. “These opportunities demonstrate more of the good and beneficial parts of being and working in a college town. Our students benefit from these opportunities and, in turn, the borough and its citizens benefit as well. It also opens the door for better communication and understanding with each other, so that we are able to work together anytime challenges do arise.”

Aside from their mission to combat substance abuse for the well-being of the community, Kutztown Strong hopes to strengthen the community overall.

“All of these KU students are being strong and engaged community citizens,” said Hawkinson. “They are learning what it means to be a member of the community and also putting into practice what they are learning in the classroom. The education they are receiving through volunteering, internships, and serving on the board is valuable as they graduate, find jobs, and hopefully continue to give back to whatever community they are living in.”

According to Fiore, this relationship not only provides healthy outlets to KASD students, but also provides healthy alternatives to KU students.

“If you get students involved in their freshmen or sophomore year that are going to be here for four years,” said McKlveen. “You can really make this feel like part of their home and have a meaningful impact in the community.”

The organization serves as a response to the opiate crisis and engages all members of the community through positive change.

“There’s a brighter future because Kutztown Strong is a part of our community,” said Fiore.

Visit www.kutztownstrong.org for more information.

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