Are the kids still alright? Part III

Community, Healthy Directions seek to curb teen drinking

(Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of a three-part series ex-mining teen alcohol use in Florence.)

Community and family help heal all wounds. They look out for those in need, and lift those who are in their darkest hours.

That’s what Nicole, as she prefers to be called, believes. Nicole had seen her family members lose everything, but it was community and family that pulled them through.   

Her husband, who had been addicted to drugs most of his life, was kicked out of his home and lost his job, throwing the custody of their only child into doubt.

But Nicole didn’t give up on him.

“I just knew, the second I saw him, that he was mine,” she said. “He had no chance.”

Of course Nicole couldn’t give up on her husband, so she insisted that he go to college.

“He graduated with a 4.0 and honors,” she beamed. “It was the most amazing thing to see, and he gained 40 pounds. He looked so good with his chubby cheeks when he graduated.”

Afterwards, they decided to make a go of it in Florence, moving in with Nicole’s mother.

Her mother had also been an alcoholic for most of her life and, like her husband, Nicole refused to give up on her.

“My mom went back and forth,” Nicole recalled. “Alcohol was her drug of choice. It cost her job, and she thought that was all she was worth. She was a born leader.”

A few years before Nicole and her husband moved to Florence, her mother also hit rock bottom.

“I pulled up to the 7-11 here in town and I looked up the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings,” Nicole said. “I sent her a schedule. She laid in bed for two days, and then walked into a meeting. She was a mess. Alcohol withdrawal was not pretty, but the group here embraced her. Whatever she needed, they were there to help her. And they still are amazing. I couldn’t be more proud of her.”

With the help of her mother, Nicole, who had been drinking heavily since she was 15, also began to curb her drinking.

“When we moved to Florence, I felt like I needed to not drink because of my mom,” she said. “For a good two years I didn’t have a single drink. I didn’t feel comfortable drinking with my mom around me.”

Nicole still drinks, but never in her home. Her son has never seen her drunk.

“I think that’s something that’s very important. Seeing parents drink in moderation, because it’s not a bad thing,” she said.

As to when she drinks, “It has to be a celebration or something,” she said. “A birthday, a social occasion.”

When asked why someone with a history of alcoholism still drinks, Nicole said, “I don’t know why I still drink. I guess it’s a social thing. I still look for acceptance, even though I’m an adult and I know better. I don’t know why I have to drink when I’m out with them.”

It’s normal to drink with friends, she believes. A normalcy that she’s known throughout all her life.

But the idea of what constituted normal shifted when she moved to Florence.

In her youth, binge drinking was normal, as were long weekend parties at her father’s house. Loud arguments began as the days wore on, sometimes leading to physical altercations. An unhinged world teetering on a hazy and dangerous edge.  

But now, normalcy means something completely different.

“I’m not scared I’ll drink more,” she said. “I don’t use it as a tool to escape from anything because my life is pretty good. I don’t feel that I need it.”

She trusts her own limits. She also trusts her friends will look out for her, and that the community that surrounds her will not let her fall back into old habits.

And it’s that community that will prevent her son from falling into the same traps Nicole’s family had fallen into.

“I feel confident that if someone saw my boy doing something, they would tell me,” she said. “People would say, ‘Hey, I saw what your child was doing at that party.’ That makes me feel comfortable. Raising a child, that is probably the most reassuring thing.

“I have met some of the most amazing mothers. My whole adult life, I’ve never had a support system that I do here.”

It’s that communal help that Healthy Directions wants to foster when it comes to youth drinking.

“Our goal is to start a discussion about underage drinking,” Lane County Community Health Analyst Emily Buff Bear said. “We’re decades behind in community readiness (surrounding alcohol), but that’s what community coalitions are all about.”

Abby’s Legendary Pizza in Florence, along with other community businesses, are a major part of that community push, both with following state guidelines and presenting a responsible view of drinking.  

In 2012, Abby’s was given a violation for serving alcohol to a minor by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC).

Abby’s General Manager Kristi Robinson spoke of that time.

“It was an assistant manager who did not look at the dates on the ID. She got it wrong and she personally got a fine. And then Abby’s got a fine and had to get an age verification machine,” she said.

Now, Abby’s has to pay a yearly charge for the machine, on top of the fines that the assistant manager and the restaurant itself received.

But checking ID’s isn’t the only reason that Abby’s is being recognized by Healthy Directions. The coalition believes the pizza establishment is responsible in the way it presents and serves alcohol to the public.

Yes, Abby’s has video games and is decidedly geared toward families, but it is extremely cognizant in the way it serves and presents alcohol.

The location has multiple printed warnings about underage drinking surrounding its alcohol selection — age restrictions, the health effects of alcohol, the dangers of impairment.

In fact, those signs are more noticeable than the alcohol advertisements themselves.

Robinson points out that Abby’s is always hyper-aware of how much an individual is drinking and staff members are more than willing to cut people off when someone reaches their limit.

Abby’s will be just one part of a group of local establishments that will be recognized for being family friendly by Healthy Directions.

In what it dubs “Florence Area Family Friendly Retail,” the coalition will recognize a number of establishments who serve responsibly.

Healthy Directions wants to focus on the positives, recognizing those establishments that have a healthy environment in hopes to encourage other establishments to follow suit.

The coalition also has a variety of other programs it’s planning to implement in Florence.

“We’re partnering with the school district, the City of Florence and the police department,” Buff Bear said.

Healthy Directions will work with OLCC to conduct server training regarding underage drinking.

It will have parent education nights at the Siuslaw and Mapleton school districts.    

It also hopes to bring to Florence a diversion class for minor possession violations, a program that many youth drinkers must attend once they are caught in violation of the law.

“They have one at Lane County Youth Services in Eugene,” Buff Bear said. “It happens once a month, but we think it is a hardship for Florence families to get there.”

Healthy Directions will also be working closely with the police department, including going after “shoulder taps” and parties.

For youth who cannot obtain alcohol from a family member or friend, they sometimes use the “shoulder tap” tactic. That is when a youth will walk up to a stranger outside of an establishment that sells alcohol, offer money, and hope that the stranger will procure liquor.

Florence area police will look to curb this practice through sting operations.  

The police will also focus on parties.

“Party dispersal is where police go out to different areas where the youth are known to drink and they write a MIP (Minor in Possession),” Buff Bear said. “It’s a heightened enforcement. The idea is not to write a bunch of MIPs, but let the youth know we’re stepping up enforcement.”

While these steps can make small, immediate impacts on youth drinking, it’s the involvement with the community that will ultimately change youth drinking in the long term.

“The most influential person in a youth’s life is their parents,” Buff Bear said. “It’s not inevitable for youth to drink. You can have healthy modeling, you can set a certain standard.”

The grant funding Healthy Directions will only last for two years, but youth drinking is an issue that will be debated for years to come.

“My goal is that there’s community discussion around underage drinking,” Buff Bear said. “My goal is that any of the coalition members leave this experience with a knowledge around prevention science.”

Nicole, when she was younger, didn’t have a community to help her.

Between the ages of 15 and 27, she moved 19 times.

“I was scared to be in one place for too long. I was afraid something was going to happen. I just didn’t feel safe,” she said.

But here, in Florence, she believes that she can make a difference. Because it is a small community, one that cares.

“I have a big heart,” she said. “My past dictates who I am, and I always worry about that. But the kids are the ones who need our help. There are a ton of people out there who have kids now that grew up like I did.”

And Nicole, along with her mother, her husband, her son, her friends, her co-workers, the schools, the police, the businesses and the nearly 10,000 people who live in the Siuslaw community, will help those kids — through listening, talking and asking questions.   

The discussion is difficult, one that cuts to the heart of what some view as a cultural and monetary identity for Oregon.

Do we put too much emphasis on alcohol consumption in our daily lives? Do we ignore the legal intoxicants in pursuit of illicit ones? Do we look at youth drinking as an inevitability, and in the process encourage it? Do we demonize youth who do drink, instead of looking to understand their situation? Can businesses look at their own culpability in youth drinking and take pains to change it, like Abby’s? Can parents and family members do the same?  

The list of questions is endless. Only as a community will they be answered.  

And if they are answered, those involved believe, the kids will be all right.

Note: This is part 3 of a 3 part series. Find additional installments in the Special Series Archive, located here.