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Bringing Project ALERT to the Home of American Golf

by Andrea Warren

When Darlind Davis and her husband retired in 2004, they moved to Pinehurst, North Carolina (pop. 15,000), to enjoy their favorite hobby of golf. Pinehurst has eight golf courses—several of them ranked as among the world’s best—and Moore County, where Pinehurst is located, is known as “The Home of American Golf” because it has a total of forty-three golf courses, all within a fifteen-mile radius.

Although manicured fairways lend a bucolic feel to the area, Davis quickly realized that Moore County was struggling with the same social issues she had spent her career combating. “Pinehurst itself is upscale and lovely,” she said, “but the county as a whole is a mixture of rich and poor, young and old, and many ethnicities. It was struggling with growing numbers of minors abusing drugs and alcohol. I could hear alarm bells ringing.”

Davis was well acquainted with those bells. She had worked for thirty-five years in drug resistance education and was one of the country’s top experts. She had retired from her federal job in Washington, DC, feeling burned out and ready to slow down. But there was the reality that local citizens, who had formed Drug Free Moore County in 1989, had struggled ever since in their search for ways to stem the tide of teen drug abuse. Davis knew they could use her expertise.

She made the leap, signing on as a member of the board. “I found a wonderful, supportive group of people willing to do whatever it took,” she said. When the executive director became ill, Davis pitched in to help. And in 2008, when the executive director had to step down, she accepted the position. Retirement—and golfwould have to wait. 

Tackling the Problem

Drug Free Moore County is a coalition of thirty local agencies and organizations working to reduce underage abuse of alcohol and drugs. Coalition members include businesses, churches, civic groups, law enforcement, and community organizations. “We quickly identified prescription drug abuse as a major problem,” Davis said. “Teens went doctor shopping to get prescriptions and then sold the drugs, or they took drugs from the family medicine cabinet to use or sell. To call attention to the problem, we sponsored a take-back program for unused prescription drugs. In an eighteen-month period collected over two million pills—a simple but effective effort that allowed us to educate the public about the problem.”

The county also instituted local ordinances to help keep methamphetamine (meth) abuse at bay, for like much of the nation, Moore County was seeing an increase in its production and use, sometimes with deadly results.

Knowing that drugs and alcohol will always be present, and that teens, especially, are going to experiment, coalition members agreed that prevention education for middle school students needed to be next. In North Carolina, drug education in schools is included in comprehensive health education, but, said Davis, “not a lot of time is devoted to it. A distinct identifiable program does not exist.”

The first step for the local coalition was to identify the educational tool that best fit the county’s needs. Members formed a Prevention Task Force to systematically study ten of the top evidence-based prevention programs, including Project ALERT. “At the end of the day, we concluded that Project ALERT was the very best for our county,” Davis said. “It could be delivered outside the schools, at scout meetings, in the after-school programs, or at 4-H. It was economical, and, most importantly, it had the best outcomes.” Davis began working with Project ALERT Program Manager Leslie Thompson Aguilar to bring the program to Moore County.

Task Force members were pleased that lessons specifically addressed the problems associated with prescription drugs and meth, as well as other drugs, alcohol, and smoking. “Teen pregnancy and child obesity are also big problems here, so we also liked that lessons crossed over to other behavioral concerns, such as impulse control and decision making,” Davis said. “Kids need behavioral strategies and Project ALERT delivers them. Everyone got excited about the program.”

The Project ALERT Approach to Training

To fund Project ALERT, Davis helped get grants from the state and from the Moore County Community Foundation. When the first program materials arrived, the posters, videos, and three-ring notebooks attracted everyone’s attention. Then came training for both adult and youth leaders. Initially it was delivered by Project ALERT trainers. Later on, leaders were trained on line. Davis thought both ways were effective. “The trainers were top drawer,” she said, “and the on-line training is superior to anything I’d seen in my career.  I’m impressed that after you’ve had the training, you can continue to go to the website for updates at no cost, allowing teachers to stay current with new developments. It makes Project ALERT affordable to communities with limited budgets.”

What Davis appreciates most about the training is Project ALERT’s approach to teaching. “You ask the students questions and let them be the experts. You facilitate, instead of talking at them. Then you give them behavioral strategies to help them be self aware and stay safe. It’s much more effective than other methods.

“We know it’s working. The other day one of our presenters told me about a student who said the course had helped her refuse a friend’s offer of a cigarette because she knew the consequences--and because of Project ALERT, she knew how to say no.”

After two years of ground work, Project ALERT is firmly in place in Moore County. Currently, twenty different youth organizations offer it, including 4-H clubs, the Boys Club, and the Girls Club. Pinehurst’s parochial school system has integrated it into their health classes. It’s not yet in the public schools, but that’s the eventual goal.  Altogether Project ALERT is reaching about 200 young people in the county at any given time.

At the end of 2011, Davis resigned as executive director of Drug Free Moore County.  “I felt I had done my thing. I told them I would stay involved on an ad hoc basis, and I still get calls. But I’m also playing golf, so it’s okay.”

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