Unite! Washougal earns national attention

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Unite! Washougal Community Coalition's Megan Kanzler (far right) participates in an activity with members of Washougal High School's PEP Unite! club. Unite! Washougal is one of eight drug-free coalitoins to be included in a case study that has been submitted to President-elect Joe Biden's transition team. (Contributed photo courtesy of Margaret McCarthy)

A local coalition dedicated to helping Washougal youth make health life choices is being recognized nationally.

The Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America recently chose eight drug-prevention coalitions to highlight in the group’s informational packet, submitted to President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team in early December.

Among them? Unite! Washougal, a grassroots community coalition that includes Washougal residents, students, businesses, law enforcement, educators, churches, government officials and concerned parents united around one common goal: to support youth and encourage families and the entire Washougal community to make healthy choices.

Washougal City Councilman Paul Greenlee has been a part of the group since its formation in 2012.

“The puzzle (in front of us was), ‘How do we transform a bunch of garage doors into a community?'” said Greenlee, who joined Unite! Washougal as a steering member committee and now serves as its organizer and chair. “It was clear to me very early on that Unite! Washougal was going to be a big piece of the answer to that puzzle.”

Being included as one of eight community groups being presented to the next president’s transition team shows the group has been finding success over the past eight years, said the group’s executive director, Margaret McCarthy.

“There are over 700 coalitions, so to be one of eight is pretty amazing,” McCarthy said. “This is recognition for our community – all the things that we know are right in Washougal, all the good things that you see when you come here. We have a city government and a school district and employers and families and parents and youth that want positive change to happen, want to work together, are focused on collaboration and dedicate a lot of their time and effort towards that.”

“This shows that the work that we’re doing is making a difference and that we can be empowered to even go further,” McCarthy added. “We’re doing the right things for the right reasons.”

The Office of National Drug Control Policy’s Drug-Free Communities Support Program, which provides grants to community coalitions, including Unite! Washougal, to strengthen the infrastructure among local partners to create and sustain a reduction in local youth substance use, commissioned the Unite! Washougal case study that was sent to Biden’s team.

The study showed that, between 2014 and 2018, Washougal teenagers reduced their use of alcohol by 6 percent, tobacco by 43 percent, marijuana by 9 percent and prescription drugs by 26 percent.

“That’s significant, especially given the fact that marijuana was legalized (in Washington) during that time,” Greenlee said. “What’s particularly fascinating about that is that the statewide numbers and the national numbers have all gone the other way. We’ve not just gone lower than the base level. We’re fighting the trend even more than that. And we’re seeing significant reductions in ‘perception of harm’ for all of these things as well.”

Unite! Washougal has implemented a “Positive Community Norms” campaign, an evidence-based strategy that works to correct misperceptions, reduce underage drinking and other drug use, reinforce positive parenting habits, and raise awareness of the fact that the majority of students in the Washougal School District are making healthy choices.

“The ‘Positive Community Norms’ thing has been successful, maybe even more successful than I expected it to be at the beginning,” Greenlee said. “It’s one of the fundamentals of prevention science. If one-third of the seniors in a high school are using alcohol once every 30 days, for example, that means that two-thirds aren’t. That’s what you want to talk about. Some kids might say that all of their friends are using alcohol, but in reality, most of them aren’t. You want to break down (the myth) of ‘Everybody is doing it,’ because it’s not true.”

The nonprofit Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) hopes to use the case studies to advocate for more drug-free community programs like Unite! Washougal throughout the United States.

CADCA President Barrye Price wrote in a letter to McCarthy that “the Biden transition team is particularly interested in drug-free community coalitions that serve minority communities” and praised Unite! Washougal’s work with underrepresented youth and families.

“Your coalition’s work with the LGBT and Latinx communities …. helps make the case that the (drug-free communities) program should be funded at the highest possible level during the upcoming Biden administration,” Price said.