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Effort in works to bring back Communities That Care to Middletown

By Dan Miller danmiller@pressandjournal.com
Posted 5/17/17

An effort is underway to bring Communities That Care back to Middletown.

Communities That Care is a nationally known research-based initiative that works with existing groups in a community to …

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Effort in works to bring back Communities That Care to Middletown

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An effort is underway to bring Communities That Care back to Middletown.

Communities That Care is a nationally known research-based initiative that works with existing groups in a community to address issues impacting young people, such as substance abuse and violence.

Communities That Care helps better coordinate what groups in a community are already doing to focus on these problems, said Ellen Willenbecher, a member of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Middletown who is leading the effort to bring Communities That Care back to the greater Middletown area.

“Communities That Care is not so much a program … it’s more a process that you build a coalition of people and organizations in your community who together work to communicate with each other (and to) determine what are the risks to kids and families in Middletown,” said Willenbecher. Working through Communities That Care, the local coalition then develops a plan to address these risks.

Communities That Care is based nationally at University of Washington, where the two co-founders of the initiative, David Hawkins and Richard Catalano, still work. The Middletown effort is working through a Communities That Care affiliate at the main campus of Penn State University, known as the Evidence-Based Prevention & Intervention Support Center, or EPIS.

The local group plans to apply to Communities That Care for a start-up grant in early 2018, with grant awards to be announced in spring or summer 2018, Willenbecher said.

Middletown used to have a Communities That Care program funded through a CTC grant that was administered by Middletown Area School District.

The local CTC program had been run under auspices of the Olmsted Regional Recreation Board until July 2012, when changes in the local CTC board of directors led the school district to assume responsibility for the program, said district Superintendent Lori Suski.

“We believed in the value of the programs but it had become increasingly difficult for part-time non-district staff paid through the CTC grant funds to meet the necessary requirements of the grant” and the grant was terminated in April 2014, Suski told the Press & Journal in an email.

In 2016 Willenbecher approached the school district on behalf of St. Peter’s, to ask if the district would support St. Peter’s becoming the lead agency to apply for a new grant from Communities That Care. Suski on behalf of the district encouraged the initiative.

St. Peter’s has hosted two meetings ­— in November 2016, and on April 20. Among those attending the April 20 meeting was Suski, Middletown Interim Police Chief George Mouchette and Officer Mark Laudenslager, Middletown Borough Councilor Dawn Knull and other community leaders, a representative of Tri-County Opportunities Industrialization Center, a counselor from Reid Elementary School, and representatives of St. Peter’s.

Leading the meeting was Elizabeth Eckley, who works with Communities That Care at Penn State main campus. Penn State Harrisburg is also involved in the effort, Willenbecher said.

Suski talked about the effort during the last Middletown Area School Board meeting on April 24. Areas with Communities That Care report lower crime and lower juvenile delinquency rates, and lower rates of drug and alcohol abuse among young people, she told the board.

Today there are more than 60 active Communities That Care coalitions in Pennsylvania, according to the website of the EPIS center at Penn State. Research studies both in Pennsylvania and nationwide document that CTC is effective in improving public health, reducing delinquency and youth drug use, and improving academic achievement, according to the EPIS center.

Lower Dauphin has had a Communities That Care program in partnership with Lower Dauphin School District since September 2001. Elizabethtown and Halifax also have Communities That Care, said Kathy Peffer, the full-time program director of Communities That Care in Lower Dauphin.

Similarly, Communities That Care would take in all of Middletown Area School District, including young people not just from the borough but also throughout Royalton and Lower Swatara Township, Willenbecher said.

A first step in implementing Communities That Care would be developing a research-based risk assessment based on results of a survey conducted of Middletown Area School District students every other year, the Pennsylvania Youth Survey. The survey is developed by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

The survey asks students in grades 6, 8, 10 and 12 about their behavior, attitudes and knowledge concerning alcohol, tobacco, other drugs, and violence.

The survey would be the “beginning of understanding” for the research-driven approach Communities That Care would emphasize in working with the local coalition to address issues impacting young people in the Middletown area, Willenbecher said.

“The school district analyzes the results (of the survey) and makes decisions in the school setting based on that evidence,” Willenbecher said. “But how might interpreting that data inform how the community could start making a plan to move forward?”

Other potential sources of data and local research that Communities That Care could mine as part of the risk assessment could include the number of district students who qualify for free and reduced lunches, and statistics from local police regarding the number of incidents involving juveniles, and the kind of incidents.

There is nothing to prevent leaders of the school district, St. Peter’s, and myriad other groups from coming together on their own to develop a more unified strategy toward working on youth-related challenges, Willenbecher said.

But being part of Communities That Care would tap the Middletown area into the experience and lessons learned that have benefitted towns all over Pennsylvania and nationwide that have adopted the Communities That Care model, she said.

Besides identifying where existing groups duplicate efforts, Communities That Care can identify service gaps, and help communities raise the money to create new local programs to provide those services.

“We aren’t there just out on our own but in fact we are part of a statewide if not nationwide network to exchange information, ideas, and resources,” Willenbecher said.

If St. Peter’s is awarded a Communities That Care grant in 2018, the funds will go toward hiring a “mobilizer” who would work for the coalition of local groups, Willenbecher said. St. Peter’s would administer the program, funding-wise.

Middletown Borough Councilor Anne Einhorn worked as the grant-funded mobilizer of the previous Communities That Care program in the Middletown area for 10 years, from 2003 to 2013.

Einhorn is among those working with Willenbecher to restore the program in Middletown.

Communities That Care embraces a pro-active approach aimed at preventing young people from abusing alcohol and drugs, Einhorn said.

In the past prevention programs have taken something of a back seat to treatment programs. But with the heroin/opioid crisis, “I think people are more aware of the need for prevention,” Einhorn said.

Facebook and other social media spreads the word as never before of the impact that the crisis is having on the community. Einhorn is seeing people that she knows dying of overdosing from heroin.

Lower Dauphin’s program is successful because the entire community is involved, not just the school district. The same kind of community-wide “buy in” is necessary for Communities That Care to succeed in Middletown, Einhorn said.

As Willenbecher noted, it will be months from now before St. Peter’s even knows if it will be awarded a Communities That Care grant.

But even if St. Peter’s doesn’t get the grant, the process has been and is of benefit to those on the front lines working with young people in the area.

“Communities That Care has already started providing us support in building a coalition,” Willenbecher said. “They are already spending money on Middletown. They’ve come here for two trainings and they are going to do more trainings in the ensuing months. They have sent me to mobilizer training. They are encouraged by what they are seeing in Middletown.”

St. Peter’s interest in bringing back Communities That Care grew out of an afterschool program at the church that St. Peter’s started three years ago.

It is for elementary and middle school students, most of whom live in the neighborhood surrounding St. Peter’s at Spring and Union streets.

“The church was able to go beyond its walls and be more in touch with our community and have a better understanding of our community,” Willenbecher said.

At first the afterschool program focused just on homework. Homework is still a core element, but St. Peter’s has broadened the after-school program to also offer a “life skills” drug and alcohol prevention program that is provided through the Dauphin County Office of Drug and Alcohol Services.

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