Most Mainers are familiar with the tradition of barn raising, in which community members meet the challenge of building a barn by coming together to do the work collaboratively. Barn raisings aren’t nearly as common as they once were, but the tradition of community members uniting to build something lives on.

A case in point is Gardiner Area Thrives, a coalition of volunteers from Gardiner, Pittston, Randolph and West Gardiner that is working to reduce youth substance use and build communities where youth thrive.

Since 2019, Gardiner Area Thrives, in partnership with Healthy Communities of the Capital Area, has benefited from federal funding from the Drug Free Communities program. The philosophy behind it is that local substance use (use of alcohol, marijuana, prescription drugs and tobacco) and drug problems require local solutions; therefore, funding goes to support community-based coalitions that work collaboratively to promote healthy choices and prevent youth substance use.

Gardiner-area members include parents, organization and business representatives, and other community members, as well as representatives and students from School Administrative District 11, all of whom have agreed to work together toward the common goal of building a safe, healthy, and drug-free community.

During the few years, Gardiner Area Thrives members have collaborated on ways to prevent substance misuse, provide community and school supports, promote positive adult-youth connections, increase opportunities for youth engagement and leadership, and engage in other evidence-based actions to reduce youth substance use and increase individual and community assets over time. To name just one example, Gardiner Area Thrives has disseminated prevention messages throughout the area and online via Facebook.

One of the key features of this effort is having youth volunteers provide advice and input on ways for all members to work together to reduce youth substance use, including by addressing trauma and engaging youth in more supportive and extracurricular activities. Youth have provided important perspectives that have proven to be invaluable.

In spite of parents being overwhelmed and students not being in school due to the pandemic, last year Gardiner Area Thrives was able to facilitate and receive feedback from parent surveys and from focus groups conducted with middle-school (grades 6-8) and high-school (grades 9-12) students at SAD 11. The parents were surveyed about their views about youth substance use, and the students were asked to share their observations and perceptions about the use of alcohol and marijuana, as well as vaping, at school and in the community.

We discovered that by far the biggest area of youth substance use is vaping, with the students reporting that half of all youths are vaping. The parents are very aware of the problem. When asked, “How big of a problem would you say that youth e-cigarette, vaping, and Juul use are in our community?” 64% of the parents responded, “Extremely big” and another 29% responded, “Slightly big.”

We also learned that the majority of parents agree with the statement, “Substance abuse among youth is a serious issue in our community.” They are having conversations with their middle- and high-school-age children about substance use and making their children aware of their expectations. This is gratifying, because Gardiner Area Thrives has promoted the fact that youth whose parents to talk to them about the dangers of substances early and often are far less likely to use substances than those who do not receive these critical messages at home.

Barn raising often culminated in a celebration of community achievement and spirit. Gardiner Area Thrives members have worked collaboratively to promote healthy choices and prevent youth substance use. That’s worth celebrating, too.

Carrie Arsenault, a parent, and Julia Montell, a high school student, who live in Gardiner, and Nora Diversi, a school nurse who lives in West Gardiner, are the tri-chairs of the Gardiner Area Thrives coalition.

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