Q & A with Be the Influence Director Laura Morris

Be the Influence director Laura Morris, left, at a national conference in Washington coalition youths Danielle Meader and Maggie Bradford and Youth Advisor Doug Daigle. 

RAYMOND — The Be the Influence Coalition has been working for several years to promote drug-free communities for young people in Windham and Raymond.

Coalition director Laura Morris spoke with the Lakes Region Weekly about the group’s ongoing efforts and current initiatives.

She said the coalition combines efforts from various sectors within the communities, including schools, law enforcement, policymakers, businesses, religious organizations, parents and youth.

Q: Can you provide a short synopsis of how Be the Influence got going?

A: I think it was 2012, there was a group of people just in the Windham-Raymond area who were identifying that, really, substance abuse was quite a problem with youth. And it was just too much for law enforcement and the schools to try to figure out on their own … so they decided long ago that it would be great to kind of engage the whole community and have a coalition of people.

So [the coalition] started reaching out to business professionals and to religious groups, and to parents and youth and that type of thing – and building up the sectors of the communities… to form a small coalition.

And then three years ago, [the group] got a full drug free community grant, which is a federally funded grant. They’re all over Maine, they’re national. And it basically gives a community 10 years to try to bring all of these sectors together…

Really our mission is just to, as a community, find ways to educate our youth and educate the community on how we can prevent substance abuse from the start.

Q: What sort of initiatives are you undertaking right now?

A: Some of the ones that we’re working on now is updating tobacco, vaping, marijuana policies in the schools — in the communities. We have a hot-spot task force, so we’ve identified areas in the communities where we see activity, either selling or using, going on with youth … And so we’ve been able to, out of about twelve different [hot]-spots, change that behavior … We’re doing a lot of parent education, and with the opiate task force, we bring in behavior health specialists, we bring in law enforcement, we’re bringing in medical personnel and pharmacists.

Q: Is there a substance that the coalition sees as particularly problematic right now?

A: We work on all substances, but I will say just because of social norm — we know that opiates are bad, that there’s an opiate crisis, we know that alcohol and tobacco have been bad, we’ve known that for years — what I don’t think people are really understanding is that for an undeveloped brain, marijuana really does significant harm. Particularly with the concentration of the THC level that we have in this day and age.

Q: Has the coalition engaged with local, state and federal officials?

A: Absolutely. I work a lot on regional and statewide committees. But our coalition itself — because the sectors are so broad, we have government officials, we have legal officials, we have law enforcement. And they’re very progressive in terms of keeping in touch with updated local marijuana legislation and what the municipalities do. And we are staying ahead of anything that’s legislative as well.

Q: Do you have any upcoming events?

A: We have implemented youth groups in every school in Raymond secondary at least. So we do a lot of peer-to-peer education. Coming up this summer we’ll be doing a peer to peer theatre camp where there will be learning programs. And then they’re going to present that [work] to the elementary schools in the fall. We have a dodgeball tournament coming up… We have the Red Claws involved in that, and it’s April 28.

The high school youth have been trained to learn about lots of different substances, and they go and they train middle schoolers … they’re also learning a program called sidekicks [which looks at] how we talk to other teens about substance abuse.

Within Windham Middle School, there’s a group that’s working with seventh graders, I believe, and I’m just advising them, but they’re going to be doing media campaigns and all sorts of things community-wide [about] opiates.

We have this huge art mural that we’re going to be doing a ribbon cutting on coming up soon. We’ve been rotating [it] around to all of the schools, and basically, it’s this huge mural that will be either at the library or one of the schools, or it will be at the city office, or Smitty’s or wherever we decide to put it each month. And it will kind of be a Where’s Waldo as to where’s the mural going to show up. And that’s really a way to get youth engaged after school in things that are healthier and enriching. And then when they see it around town, they’ll feel like they have a real buy-in.

Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or mjunker@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.

Be the Influence director Laura Morris, left, at a national conference in Washington coalition youths Danielle Meader and Maggie Bradford and Youth Advisor Doug Daigle.