12 years in the nonstop fight against drugs



Twelve years ago, a small group of concerned citizens and the Wilmington Police Department put together an anti-drug forum to discuss the issues of abuse and ways the community could address them.

“There were so many people at The Mar, so they said 'let's set another meeting and we'll get a coalition started,'” Paula Ekstrom, president of the Wilmington Coalition for a Healthy Community said of the group's beginning. 

The volunteers who attended that meeting became the core group that secured federal funding for the healthy community initiative and began developing partnerships, programs and events such as the Safe Homes Directory and an end of summer party in the park. 

The coalition's mission is to build a community free of substance abuse by effecting lasting, positive change for the economic, social, spiritual and physical well-being of Wilmington's children and adults. Basically, the group tries to provide safe and healthy alternatives while offering help when things go wrong.

“The coalition in those first years; we didn't have much money and we were all volunteers, so we only really were able to do a couple, three things a year. We weren't able to do anything special at the schools, we weren't able to give anything free,” Ekstrom said.

The coalition received a small anti-methamphetamine grant that allowed it to take kids bowling, roller skating, and to organize a backwards baseball game. The group also held a training session for landlords, so they would be able to recognize the signs of a meth lab being operated out of one of their properties. 

In 2010, despite some growing pains, the volunteers decided they had nothing to lose by applying for a Drug Free Communities Support Program grant through the Substance Abuse and Health Services Administration and the Office of National Drug Control Policy. They had only three weeks to put together the application, which focused on underage drinking and marijuana.

The WCHC was awarded the grant; $125,000 in matching funds per year for five years. The city, an integral partner in the coalition's success, pays the rent as its contribution toward the local match. Ekstrom considers those rent dollars money the city spends to bring services into the community; the city's commitment to helping the community to grow more healthy.

Although the match started at $1 - for every dollar of local money spent on the coalition's effort, it received $1 in federal funds - the local match increased to $1.25, it's now $1.50 for every dollar in federal funding. Volunteer hours, the value of donated use of facilities, and donations of goods and services count toward the local match. Last year, the coalition was able to access the entire $125,000 awarded to it.

The grant was renewed for a second term, and the coalition is currently in it's eighth funding year working toward program sustainability. The second five years of funding focus on tobacco, alcohol and drug use, notes member Beth Chappel.

“The big thing is prevention … Prevention is where it starts, trying to educate people in your community ahead of time, to show them that there are other alternatives to that type of lifestyle,” Ekstrom said.

She admits a lot of money the coalition spends is staff-related, but adds that volunteers could never do all of the planning and program administration and relationship building that are currently handled by the one full- and one part-time employee.

Grant funding does have its limitations, though. Drug Free Communities grant funds can't be used to provide a pizza party for the Tobacco Free Teens or refreshments at most events. The coalition does fundraisers to pay for those things, from a cookout at The Launching Pad to an exhibition game by the Harlem Ambassadors.

“The police dog … prizes for post prom, those came out of the fundraising we do” explained Connie Hubbard, the coalition treasurer. “We also partner with other organizations, like the Rotary and the pregnancy resource center … the Lions Club.

“We're trying to partner, because that's the whole thing, as a community, coming together and helping each other,” Hubbard added. “… Sustainability is all about partnering up. You need to partner up with others and get involved, because it's a community thing, this drug prevention and awareness and alcohol and underage tobacco use. As a community it affects us all, so we need to partner with the churches, schools, other organizations.”

Because sustainability is critical to the continuance of the coalition's work, the group is working on grant writing as well as educating its members on writing strategic plans and developing ideas. 

Goals for the future include maintaining an office and staff and establishing a youth center.

These programs are made possible, wholly or in part, by the Wilmington Coalition for a Healthy Community. This is by no means a complete list of coalition initiatives:

• Family support - The staff spends a considerable amount of time each week reaching out to resources to help local families, including making connections with the Braidwood Police Department, which connects drug abusers with treatment centers and gets rehabilitation started.

• Counseling for families and individuals - AMT Counseling offers services at the coalition office so that residents don't have to drive all the way to Joliet or Kankakee.

• Vivitrol treatment program - Vivitrol injections block the receptors in the brain that produce a high and can be an effective treatment for alcohol or drug abuse. The program is available through Riverside Medical Center.

• Free Narcan training - the coalition provides free training in the use of Narcan, which reverses the effect of an opioid overdose. Participants received two ready-to-administer doses.

• Post prom - the coalition played an integral role in the first post prom, and stepped back for the second. The group expects to be even less involved next year, permitting the organizers of the event to really take it over.

“We'll have some people there, but this is how it's meant to be. We might start at this level but then we need to get it turned to a point where it's not dependent on us anymore,” Ekstrom said.

“Right get everything going, the community involved, get them going, then start the next thing, get everybody involved, so everybody's working together for the community,” Chappel added.

• Smoking cessation classes and support 

• Prescription drug take back events - there's a very real link between prescription medications and drug abuse. Drug take back events with the Wilmington Police Department and federal DEA help residents safely dispose of unused medications.

• Tobacco free parks - the use of all tobacco products in the places kids play is prohibited in Wilmington, thanks to the coalition's Tobacco Free Teens, who requested the City Council create the restriction.

• Safe Homes Directory - This was one of the coalition's first projects. It's a list of homes in the community in which the adults in charge pledge to actively supervise all youth gatherings in their home, and to provided an appropriate example for them. Parents have to join the network to have access to the directory.

The coalition meets on the second Monday of every month at 6:30 p.m. in the community room at the Wilmington Public Library District, 201 S. Kankakee St. The meetings end before 8 p.m. The public is invited to attend.