Coalitions in Action – Hernando Community Coalition Comes Back Stronger After Losing Funding

“Hernando County, Florida is located roughly 45 miles north of Tampa and 50 miles east of Orlando, with an estimated population of 190,865 people,” said Hernando Community Coalition Executive Director Tresa Watson. “Currently, 14.1% of residents meet the federal poverty guidelines. In the current school year there are 21,229 students enrolled in Hernando public schools, with more than half deemed economically disadvantaged and nearly 70% qualifying for free/reduced lunch, according to the Florida Department of Education. Prior to 1998, Hernando County, Florida was considered a retirement community, and the county was more than half acreage.”

“In 2004, the Hernando Community Coalition was formed in response to high rates of youth alcohol and other drug use,” said Watson. “At that time, it was evident in the county that a lot of work was needed to reduce and prevent the alcohol and other drug use rates among youth, as results from the 2002 FYSAS ranked Hernando County Middle and High Schools’ alcohol and other drug use higher than statewide averages in almost every drug category. The coalition partners all work together to tackle the issue of youth substance use, both to target specific issues and to implement independent programs in the community. Creating population level change is the goal of the coalition partners, meaning creating a healthy, safe and drug-free Hernando County for all.”

“The Hernando School District and Sheriff Office believe the prevalence of vaporizer use for nicotine and marijuana among students has increased, based on student violations skyrocketing in the past year,” said Watson. “In the 2016/17 school year, there were 16 violations for the use of a vaporizer for nicotine. In the 2018/19 year, there were 266 violations, an overall increase of 1,563% for nicotine devices, as well as 60 violations for vaping marijuana, (with none on record in the previous two-year span). In the first two weeks of the current school year, the district reported 70 students were cited on school campuses for a vaping violation.”

“In 2018, 14.7% of students in Hernando County reported past 30-day alcohol use, with an alarming 60% of recent drinkers reporting binge drinking,” said Watson. “Past 30-day use of marijuana was reported among 12.8% of students, above the statewide average of 10.9%. Past 30-day vaporizer use was reported among 14.4% of students, also above the statewide rate. Hernando students reported higher rates of ever misusing a prescription drug than their peers statewide, with 6% having used a depressant, 4.8% having used a pain killer, and 2.6% an amphetamine. In 2018, 11 to 17-year-olds who reported substance use in the past 30-days also reported lower percentages of A’s and B’s then their non-using peers by wide margins, as was true for delinquent behaviors. Gaps in the system of care and the related impact stretch across our most vulnerable populations. The only publicly funded child psychiatrist has a three-month waitlist. In the 2017/18 fiscal year there were 411 involuntary hospitalizations by youth under 18 from Hernando. Data from the FYSAS also indicated that untreated mental illness is contributing to youth substance use.”

“Our showcase initiative is Hernando’s Substance Exposed Newborn (SEN) Task Force,” said Watson. “As the 2015 CADCA Coalition of the Year, we made and have sustained significant reductions in underage drinking, prescription drug misuse and youth tobacco issues. Hernando County’s newborns are our community’s future and need to be at the forefront of prevention.”

“As part of this initiative, the coalition has developed a "New Mom Toolkit- Information and Resources to Help those Expecting, New Moms and Families, or Those Sexually Active," explaining how exposure to prescription drugs and other opiates effect newborns, including steps for help, links for services and more,” said Watson.

“We also created a website to provide education and resource materials to addicted mothers, community awareness and education materials Hernando County Citizens and residents, and support and resources for providers,” said Watson. “In addition, we have created and distributed resource cards with resources for pregnant girls and women to get help and have provided expert speakers at meetings and events to help approach these issues.”

“The overarching goal of the Hernando SEN Taskforce is to decrease the number of substance exposed newborns entering the NICU in Hernando County by 5%, measured by hospital service utilization records,” said Watson. “We plan to accomplish this by developing, updating and utilizing awareness and resource materials, including PSA’s, handouts, presentations, toolkits and resource maps, on the dangers babies born addicted face across their lifespan, the long-term costs of substance exposed babies and the impact on the parent(s) and community. In the last quarter of 2019, we started seeing decreases of babies born addicted to opioids in Hernando County. However, there have sadly been increases in methamphetamine addicted babies.”

“To other coalitions facing the same issues, don’t give up,” said Watson. “After our initial startup and being awarded the Drug Free Communities grant in 2008, we were recognized as the up and coming expert agency in Hernando County. Disappointingly, in 2013 we did not receive funding through Drug Free Communities grant for years 6-10. The agency, made up of mostly volunteers, contractors and unpaid staff, banded together for the next year with reduced or no pay, reapplied, and were awarded the grant. The very next year, we won the CADCA Coalition of the Year due to our perseverance, and community wanting the coalition to continue its work – it was very bittersweet and made the gap year more than worth our efforts.”