Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 4:48 PM on Wednesday, February 29, 2012

$1 million grant to target alcohol abuse

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer


Esther Hammerschlag,

Beginning in 2008, community meetings, surveys and assessments drew upon area residents to create a vision of a "healthy" community.

That collaborative effort of individuals and resource agencies, as well as the resulting steps toward making that vision a reality has become known as MAPP of the Southern Peninsula — "MAPP" being short for a framework known at Mobilizing for Action through Planning and Partnership.

From that process, three priorities pushed to the surface: promoting healthy lifestyles, connecting existing agencies, and reducing substance abuse and domestic violence, said Derotha Ferraro of South Peninsula Hospital.

A data-gathering process underscored substance abuse as a community issue, according to Sharon Whytal, former director of the MAPP project and a public health nurse.

"We collected data from the court system, from police and troopers, from Haven House, from CICADA, from all the organizations that see the impact or the consequences of substance abuse in the community," said Whytal.

"And then we also asked the community in surveys and interviews what are the most important issues, and substance abuse came up high as a community problem."

So high, in fact, that during 2006 Homer hit an all-time record of 226 DUI arrests, Homer Chief of Police Mark Robl said in a report to the Homer City Council. The number was so high even the FBI called to make sure it was an accurate statistic.

While identified as a problem, how big a problem is it? How can it be most effectively addressed?

Answering those questions is the role of the Homer Prevention Project, an outgrowth of the MAPP effort and recipient of a $1 million Strategic Prevention Framework State Incentive Grant.

Specifically, the grant will fund a three-year local effort to reduce alcohol use by youth between the ages of 12-20, as well as heavy and binge drinking of adults in the 21- to 44-year-old age group.

"The grant for what is named the 'Homer Prevention Project' was largely based on the work completed and strong partnerships built through MAPP of the Southern Kenai Peninsula," said Esther Hammerschlag, the project's newly hired director, referring to the importance of the collaborative effort.

South Peninsula Haven House, The Center and Cook Inlet Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse contributed to the writing of the grant. A five-member advisory group will work with Hammerschlag. It is comprised of Ferraro; Whytal; Peg Coleman, director of South Peninsula Haven House; David Branding, CEO for The Center and South Peninsula Behavioral Health Services; and Henry Novak of the Cook Inlet Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse.

While larger communities have been able to fund prevention efforts tailor-made to their needs, Homer has lacked the financial resources to do that. Now, the grant will allow Homer to "look at the issue and come up with strategies specific to Homer," said Coleman. "It will give us a better baseline on what the problem is. This will allow us to identify issues in the community that either encourage substance abuse or inadvertently facilitate it."

The three-year time period also allows a window for developing sustainable approaches and reviewing policies of individual agencies to make them more effective in addressing substance abuse, said Coleman.

Having just arrived in Homer in December, Branding said he lacked insights into the development of the grant. However, it allowed him to immediately begin "actively collaborating with other organizations in the community the day I arrived. Some of those relationships might have otherwise taken years to develop."

Hammerschlag also is a recent Homer addition, arriving in Homer in mid-January after being hired as the project director. She comes from Prince of Wales Island, where she was the director for the Prince of Wales Health Network, a collaborative project between separate health care providers. Hammerschlag's efforts there won her the National Cooperative of Health Networks' recognition as the "2011 NCHN Outstanding New and Emerging Network Leader of the Year."

"She's obviously a wonderful addition to the community," said Coleman. "She's navigating our different agencies in a way that will bring it all together in a very community centered way. It's a wonderful win already with this grant."

Hammerschlag described the grant activities as "environmental-based."

"What that means is that instead of providing direct services to clients, which is how we often think about substance abuse and mental health services, it will be implementing strategies in the community focused on changing community norms," she said.

Examples might include working with local bar owners or implementing programs in schools that aim at prevention of substance abuse.

Additional staff will eventually be hired for the Homer Prevention Project and the advisory group will expand "so we have a real breadth of representation from community resources," said Hammerschlag. "The strategic framework is very data driven, so there's an emphasis on collecting data to make the best informed decisions."

The Homer Prevention Project is located at 1230 Ocean Drive. There are no set hours, as yet. A website is being constructed. Until then, information can be found on the MAPP site, mappofskp.net. Hammerschlag can be reached at 235-0570 or HomerSPFSIG@gmail.com.

"I'm really excited to be here," said Hammerschlag. "I think this is an exciting, fun project. A lot of good will come out of it for the community."

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben. jackinsky@homernews.com.