In Phelps County, the average age of first use of alcohol is 12.3 years of age, with 51.1% of youth believing that it would be easy to obtain alcohol. One local team, the Prevention Consultants of Missouri, hopes to change that with a newly implemented program for middle school students.

“Project Northland” is a curriculum-based activity session for sixth, seventh and eighth graders in our public schools. Within the past month, the Prevention Consultants team has begun it’s first round of eight sessions targeting students in hopes of giving them knowledge, an opportunity to have open, honest conversation and alternatives to drug and alcohol abuse.

“A really neat thing about this program is that it gets communication going between students and the parents,” said Lana Croft, prevention education specialist. “So the curriculum (sixth grade) is about opening that communication between the child and the home—what kind of rules does our family have about underage drinking? The seventh grade (curriculum) goes into alternatives, and the eighth grade curriculum is community oriented.”

In Phelps County, the substance use of alcohol for grades six through twelve is above the state average at 15.4 percent. That’s a sobering thought and the reason for Prevention Consultants existence. “It’s not just a “feel good” business,” said Jamie Myers, executive director of Prevention Consultants of Missouri. “There is a science behind what we do and a process. If you reduce access to a substance, use goes down. That’s an example of addressing a risk factor. We’re all about ‘how can we reduce that factor for substance use or how can we build protective factors?’”

A three year study of “Project Northland” by the Center for Substance Abuse Programs showed a 30 percent lower rate of weekly drinking in adolescence, and a 27 percent lower use of cigarettes and alcohol by the end of eighth grade—a number that the Prevention Management team hopes to see in the local area.

The Prevention Consultants team does not focus solely on school age groups, or only in Rolla. “We work in eight counties, and so we have coalitions in most of those counties which are groups of law enforcement, schools, community agencies and parents,” Myers said. “Our work is to build those coalitions and help them build what they think needs to be done in their community around substance use prevention. We provide them data, we provide training and we help them identify evidence-based strategies. We don’t tell them what to do, we help them determine what needs to be done.”

In 2015, Phelps County public records showed 281 individuals were admitted into substance abuse programs in the area, with these numbers not accounting for private institution admittance. “We get people from Phelps county who have accessed treatment in the past year and their primary drug use is alcohol,” Myers said. “We did an (opioid prevention) class five years ago. What do hear most about with drug issues today? Opioids. So we were doing prevention five years ago, but a lot of the time people don’t listen until it becomes a crisis, until kids in the community start dying.”

The school program “Project Northland” has already been accessed by a large portion of students, with the first sessions ending for 170 eighth graders. “By the end of this school year in 2018, every student in junior high will have had this program.” said prevention specialist Ashley Campbell.

“On the last day, we drew twenty stick figures on the board. We put seventeen together and three of them together, and the seventeen had something in common and the three had something in common, “ said Lana Croft. “The seventeen were the non-drinkers, and the three were the drinkers. There are a lot of great kids out there, and in this great big group of kids, not everyone is drinking . . . and I think that’s a good message to the kids who are doing what they are supposed to do.”

Jamie Myers spoke of the benefits of this type of message. “That's one of the ways we use that data,” he said. “If you can say nearly eight out of tens kids stay away from alcohol, we call that social-norming. Rather than saying ‘Oh my God, 20 percent of kids are drinking,’ we say eight out of ten stay away from it. That’s a more powerful message.”

Programs in the school setting are proven to help, but Jamie Myers says that it starts in the home, first. “Parents play the biggest role in helping their kids make choices,” Myers said, “Hopefully these programs are supporting what parents are talking to their kids about.”