UNITE! Washougal Community Coalition
The UNITE! Washougal Community Coalition meets on the fourth Thursday of every month, from 4:30 to 6 p.m., at the East County Family Resource Center, 1702 “C” St., in Washougal. Visitors and potential volunteers are welcome.
To “unite” is defined as joining, combining or incorporating to form a single unit.
There is a reason this descriptive term is included in the name of the organization that is made up of a diverse group of members who work together to “support youth, encourage families, enrich community and guide healthy choices.”
UNITE! Washougal Community Coalition was formed in May 2012, funded in part by a grant from the Community Wellness and Prevention Initiative from the Washington State Department of Behavioral Health.
Adult coalition volunteers come from all walks of life: City council members, teachers, school counselors, business leaders, law enforcement officials, members of faith based organizations and citizens. Washougal High School students are also involved.
‘We complement each other,” said Julie Vanover, WHS prevention specialist and a member of the UNITE! leadership team. “Everyone has different areas that they are strong in and different experiences. I think it has worked really well.”
Washougal resident Margaret McCarthy is UNITE!’s director, and the organization’s only paid staff member. She works part-time to oversee the group’s work and keep up with grant reporting requirements.
“They are so dedicated and they are so connected to each other,” McCarthy said of the coalition. “There is a lot of trust. These people have worked together before. They have a shared vision together. The fun part of it is getting to work together and encouraging each other and moving forward.”
The coalition uses a holistic approach in its work to prevent underage alcohol, tobacco and drug use, and tackle the core issues that often cause kids to make unhealthy choices.
UNITE! efforts to date have included supporting events such as Challenge Day at Washougal High School, health fairs, the Clark County Youth Leadership and Prevention Summit and parenting classes. It has also initiated a community pride campaign.
With its partners, the group relies on data collected through annual community surveys, as well as the confidential Healthy Youth Survey, which is distributed every two years to students in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades. It asks students to respond to questions about alcohol, tobacco and drug use, perceptions and trends.
Coalition members said the Washougal community faces some challenges when it comes to these issues. Among them is lack of access to extra-curricular activities, as well as inaccurate perceptions about how many young people are actually using drugs and alcohol. The latter is described as one of the most prevalent obstacles.
According to the most recent Healthy Youth Survey, 8 out of 10 students in Washougal are not using drugs or tobacco products. Unfortunately, many kids believe it is more commonplace.
“It gives them the feeling that it’s no problem if they do it,” explained Owen Sanford, WHS counselor and coalition member. “It decreases that sense of pride in the community. It’s a cycle. We want to focus on the positives, but also try to focus on the risk factors as well.’
Several coalition members expressed concern that state initiatives that have resulted in the legalization of recreational marijuana and the sale of hard liquor in grocery stores would further exacerbate those inaccurate perceptions.
“It’s a really terrible thing. It takes us back years in terms of kids thinking that it’s OK,” Vanover said. “Because of increased advertising, it puts it in a positive light. They spend millions of dollars a year to focus on that age group because they are upcoming users.”
One of the primary charges of UNITE! is to work to reduce the risk factors that would lead youth to get involved with drugs and alcohol in the first place.
“Prevention works upstream,” McCarthy said. “We care about what’s happening right now, but we look back to see how that happened, and how we can prevent that from occurring.”
Vanover said that prevention efforts must be sustainable long-term.
“Our approach is sensitive,” she said. “From day one I’ve always tried to stress that this is a process. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take a long time to make changes in our community. Whatever we are doing, whatever we are trying to accomplish, has to be something that is going to work in this community and make sense. It has to be something that’s sustainable and not just talk.”
Among the keys to the effort is the involvement of a dedicated group of coalition volunteers representing different facets of the community.
“What we are doing is giving community members a chance to take action,” Sanford said. “This is a chance, if you want to make some changes, to be part of that. This is a very clear way of doing so.”
Rhea Bohlin, now retired, previously worked as a specialist with the Highly Capable program at WHS. She became involved with the coalition to make a difference for youth, families and the community.
“It’s easy to vent and recognize problem areas, but to actually have a chance to act on that and make a difference is important,” she said.
McCarthy summed up the coalition’s work precisely.
“It’s about making it so that we have the best possible future for our youth.”