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Elizabethton, a rural Tennessee community of less than 14,000, and its residents have been deeply impacted by heavy opioid use and related overdoses and deaths. Parks and recreation has also suffered. Morning trash, once consisting of litter from family picnics and birthday parties, now contains drug paraphernalia — including dangerous syringes and needles. Programs and special events are also evolving. Now, grandparents often bring their young grandchildren to participate, because one or both parents are suffering from substance-use disorder and unable to care for their children. Covered Bridge Park, a popular outdoor space once used for family recreation, is now a highly trafficked drug area that many believe is unsafe at night.
As a solution, Elizabethton Parks and Recreation developed a partnership with the local Carter County Drug Prevention Coalition — an anti-drug coalition with a mission to reduce substance use through collaborative planning, community action, and policy and advocacy efforts. Together, they work to engage at-risk youth and increase available programming through the park and recreation department. The Coalition provides the opportunity to reach and engage local youth — both through the newly formed Youth Coalition Board, as well as mentoring and outreach efforts.
Beginning in early 2019, NRPA and leaders at Elizabethton Parks and Recreation have worked together to implement and expand evidence-based mentoring practices for at-risk and high-risk youth residing in Carter County, Tennessee. With funding provided by the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Elizabethton has successfully conducted outreach and engagement efforts to gain community buy-in and support for the mentoring program. Park and recreation leaders have leveraged the relationship with Carter County Drug Prevention to engage both youth and adults for mentoring services. Together, the partners have worked to recruit, screen and train mentors, while also enrolling mentees who would benefit from one-on-one and group mentoring. The program — named Promoting Esteem Among Kids (PEAK) Mentoring — has been well promoted, even receiving attention from local news outlets. To date, PEAK has matched mentors and mentees and provides ongoing support during the COVID-19 crisis. While in-person mentoring has been put on hold for the time being, PEAK program staff have found innovative ways to stay engaged with program participants in a virtual manner.