The Carbon County Child and Family Collaborative wants to fight a major problem in the county drug and alcohol use by today's youth.

During a recent meeting of the group, which is made up of various county agencies, as well as school districts, talked about the importance of prioritizing their plan for the future.

After a discussion about what problems associated with school-aged children are found within the county, the collaborative picked three main points to become their top priority. The most important being lowering the number of children who use drugs and alcohol. Other priorities include creating a mobile therapist pilot program and expanding the SHINE after-school program; as well as other early childhood programs into the Palmerton and Weatherly school districts. Currently, Panther Valley, Lehighton, and Jim Thorpe have the SHINE program.

The collaborative also issued the following statement on its platform to work toward finding a solution to the major problem in the county: "The Carbon County Child and Family Collaborative has confirmed through multiple sources of data and community assessments that behavioral health issues (drugs and alcohol and mental health) among youth and families are a severe problem that affect the institutional fabric of our families, schools, and community. We need to address these issues as a disease impacting the body, mind, and relationships, and eliminate the stigma associated with these illnesses. We are committed to challenge all members of the community to come together to help combat these issues to promote a healthy and productive community."

Members of the group have been working to find out how bad the drug and alcohol problem is for the last two years. Each year, they conducted an anonymous survey of students that asked about drug and alcohol usage. Results showed that of the over 3,000 students who took the survey, over 1,200 students each year said they had tried alcohol, nearly 700 tried drugs, and over 500 tried tobacco.

Jeanne Miller, co-chairperson of the collaborative, gave a presentation on these results, as well as talked about the importance for programs to help educate the students.

She said the problem needs to be taken head-on because if nothing is done, it will continue to grow.

To date, the collaborative has brought in over $3 million in grants to create initiatives, such as Right From The Start and SHINE, to help children grow socially and educationally through mentor programs. It also aims to create a stronger family bond through various activities.

Since these programs began, Carbon County has seen results in the number of juvenile cases decreasing, and the students' interest in school increasing.

"Children need role models," Miller said. "We need to have the teachers build healthy relationships with their students."

The collaborative will now work on their priorities and will meet with the Carbon County Board of Commissioners on Dec. 1, to talk to them about backing the group's efforts and seeing what can be done to help alleviate this problem.

In other matters, the group talked about the collaborative's Ad HOC committee's visit to the Bethlehem School District to see it's Community Schools/ Healthy Students initiatives.

The members who traveled to the district said they were impressed by the model Bethlehem created.

"Bethlehem truly has the ultimate model," said Barbara Conway, superintendent of the Jim Thorpe School District.

In Bethlehem, the family can take classes to build resources, has medical professionals on board to help treat and educate the children, and has a central unit that can be accessed by everyone.

Miller said Carbon County's would have to be modified for the area because of how spread out everything is.

The group agreed that transportation seems to be the biggest issue when it comes to working with this model.

The collaborative also is preparing to apply for the Safe Schools Healthy Students grant, a mult-million dollar grant that would help expand programs and resources in the county. Last year, the group missed the cut off for funding by just a few points.

Leona Rega of the SHINE program also reminded everyone that the Lights On SHINE after-school program will take place on Thursday, Oct. 21, at 5 p.m. in Panther Valley High School's auditorium.

Miller said she hopes to have 500 people attend the event.