By changing lives at a young age, you can change a community. That’s what the S.T.A.N.D. Coalition has come to realize. It’s what the coalition’s Youth Service Learning Initiative (YSLI) is all about. By reaching a community’s youth, you reach the heartbeat of the community. And it’s there that you start to affect change — by convincing the youth that things don’t have to be as they are just because it’s all they’ve ever known.

That, in a nutshell, is the work of the YSLI. Now in its fifth year, the goal of YSLI is to create a better Scott County through the community’s youth. S.T.A.N.D. executive director Trent Coffey realizes that the sustainability of the coalition — which continues to evolve well beyond its original role as a drug-testing facilitator — is changing the poverty mindsets of Scott County’s youth. And it’s a goal that he and his staff — including Vickee Jones and Dale Owens — have tackled head-on. But they also realize that big change can’t happen in a big way. It has to happen in little ways — one life at a time, until a generational mindset has changed.

“Everybody wants a quick fix,” Coffey said. “It’s not going to be a quick fix. We need single-digit, incremental changes. And then in four years, if we’ve changed eight percent, we’ve reached our goal. And then we build on it from there.” 

Settled in for the long haul, Coffey and his team have already begun to see change. It might not look like much from the outside, but when you’re trying to put building blocks into place for a better future, you have to see the big picture.

“When we started the youth coalition, we couldn’t get five people at the coalition meetings,” Jones said. “As it’s grown and gotten stronger, our coalition meetings went from four or five students who didn’t seem to understand what was going on to last week, we had a coalition meeting of 62 students from Scott High School and Oneida.”

If there is strength in numbers, the slow growth of the youth coalition will have a snowball effect. As the numbers grow, momentum is gained.

The original concept of the youth coalition was simple, and it was one that tied into S.T.A.N.D.’s original purpose of drug abuse prevention. Owens, the coalition’s statistics guru, knows the numbers: Every dollar spent on prevention saves $13 to $14 in treatment and recovery support services down the road. He also knows another fact: drug abuse prevention is easiest at a younger age.

“Why not prevent a child from becoming an addict instead of following the same family traits,” Owens asks. “That’s why we started focusing on the youth. Hopefully we can change the mindset of addiction before they get to the age where it’ll just be too cost-prohibitive to help.” 

That might have been the original thought process, but it was quickly realized that there are many other problems that need to be addressed. The S.T.A.N.D. team soon began to think of drug abuse as a symptom rather than a cause. And as the issues are broken down and charted, it soon becomes clear that most of them point right back to one root factor: poverty.

In Scott County, 80 percent of high school students are economically disadvantaged. It is a statistic that Jones — whose life has been non-profit work, from Scott County’s women’s shelter to Michael’s Mission, which she founded — speaks passionately about.

“In 1999, I wrote a grant for the women’s shelter. I put in there that 80 percent of children here are economically disadvantaged,” she said. “Twenty years later, those numbers haven’t changed even a dribble. That makes me mad. Our kids deserve better than this. They’re better than that. They need to know that. They need someone to look them in the eye and say you can do better.” 

That’s the work of the YSLI — to convince Scott County’s youth that they are better, that they can dare to hope and they can have the audacity to dream.

“Some people don’t hope and dream because they don’t know they can,” Coffey said. “They’ve never gotten outside the box of this community to know that.”

It still starts with drugs. In a community so negatively impacted by the effects of substance abuse, where more kids at the age of 13 are abusing prescription drugs than are using marijuana or tobacco, it will always start with drugs. And part of the problem, Coffey said, is combatting the stigma that’s associated with addiction. 

“We’ve got to treat it as a true health issue and not as a moral judgment,” he said. “When did we become such hierarchists in this community that we’re better than anybody else? We’ve got to not pull them out (of addiction). We’ve got to go in and carry them out. It’s cliche, but we’ve got to love one another. God didn’t send for the people in the leper community. He went into the leper community and brought them out.”

But drugs are just the start. Coffey knows it, Owens knows it and Jones knows it. There are many other problems that contribute.

“You can’t just say I’m going to keep them from doing drugs,” Coffey said. “You have to change the whole mindset, especially the poverty mindset. Poverty has become a social norm. What is will always be and you can’t strive for anything better.” 

Coffey wants the population served by the S.T.A.N.D. Coalition to understand that you can do better. He’s so passionate about that idea that his organization has stopped accepting clothing donations to be redistributed.

“I don’t want to get people into the mindset that they should have someone else’s hand-me-downs,” he said. “They need to understand that they deserve new things, too.”

Jones, who is front and center with the YSLI, addresses that mindset with the youth she reaches on a daily basis. 

“I keep telling these students, that’s not how you live (accepting someone else’s hand-me-downs),” she said. “Do you want to live the rest of your life standing in a line waiting for someone else to give you what they think you deserve?”

Owens says that attitude becomes pervasive, and it spreads to the workplace. Employers say that they have a difficult time getting good employees, because people aren’t willing to work hard. They’ve become accustomed to people handing them what they need.

Changing all of that is the goal of the youth coalition. The YSLI is governed by a board of youth, which meets on the first Sunday of each month. Then, on the following Wednesday, an open forum is held at the Boys & Girls Club of the Cumberland Plateau. That’s where 62 students showed up last week. The purpose of the meeting? To give a voice to the community’s youth. To allow them to identify problems, and brainstorm ways to solve them.

“Your voice matters,” is Jones’ message to the youth. “It doesn’t matter what your last name is, what your economic background is, what kind of student you are in school. None of that matters in these meetings. What matters is your voice.

“Once they start throwing those opinions out there, I can just stand back and let them talk through things.” 

S.T.A.N.D. is building diversity through its youth coalition. On the YSLI board have been youth from both affluent families within the community and youth who have first-hand experience of the worst kind of poverty within Scott County. Through that diversity, lives can be changed directly, while teams of youth can work on farther-reaching solutions that will change the lives of more. 

And while there may not be a quick fix for poverty, sometimes the simplest of solutions can go a long way. Owens points out that studies have found that 80 percent of poverty can be avoided by doing just three things: Stay in school and graduate. Don’t have a child out of wedlock. Don’t get married before 21. “If you can do those three things,” he said, “80 percent of the time you can avoid living in poverty.” 

So, from there, the youth coalition tackles the questions: Why are Scott County’s kids dropping out of school? Why are they having kids out of wedlock? The issues they identify range from bullying to abuse to familial backgrounds of drug abuse and many others. And, one at a time, they work on solutions to those issues.

Coffey sees lives being changed through the effort. Is that change quantifiable? Only time will tell, he said. But his message remains the same: If you are a youth in Scott County, your circumstances don’t define your future. And he and his team are keeping their eyes on the bigger picture.

“We don’t want to be a feel-good organization,” Coffey said. “People say all the time that if we help just one, we’ve done our job. That is an abhorrent statement. Because if we let just one fall by the wayside, we have failed at our job.”

This article is the March 2019 installment of Profiles of a 3-Star Community, presented on the second week of each month by the Industrial Development Board of Scott County as part of the Independent Herald's Back Page Features series. A print version of this article can be found on Page B8 of the March 14, 2019 edition of the Independent Herald.