WESTBROOK — Armed with a new $1.5 million grant, The Opportunity Alliance is gearing up to provide more support to its volunteers in the Frenchtown neighborhood to prevent young people from getting addicted to drugs.

The Opportunity Alliance will use the grant to work with at-risk youth and provide them with education and resources. In addition to the Brown Street area, other neighborhoods in Portland, South Portland and Bridgton also will benefit from the grant, the organization said.

 “The idea is to provide more support to those neighborhoods where (our volunteers) are already or in communities that have work about substance abuse already,” said Bridget O’Connor, public health director for the nonprofit alliance based in Portland. 

Roberts

The Opportunity Alliance volunteers, known as Community Builders, are stationed in neighborhoods such as Frenchtown, which has a known drug problem, said Westbrook Police Chief Janine Roberts.

“One of the four main contributors of children being taken from their parents in the Brown Street area is substance use, with homelessness, mental health and domestic abuse being the other risks to our children,” Roberts said.  

Roberts, who has worked closely with The Opportunity Alliance and serves on its board, said that over the years she and her officers have realized that the path to addiction can begin before drugs even come into the picture.

“A prominent component that ties into people developing the disorder is adverse childhood experiences … and how that impacts the psyche if not treated,” Roberts said. “A lot of people go on to self-medication and once addicted, it is incredibly hard to break away from that, especially when the underlying emotions and trauma aren’t addressed.”

People are using drugs earlier, too.

The Portland Recovery Community Center sees over 130 people a day, according to Executive Director Leslie Clark, and many of them are young.

“People are coming in younger and younger,” Clark said. “I came into recovery in ’89 and there were fewer young people then. We are happy they are in recovery already, but we know they started using at like age 9, 10 or 11, so these prevention efforts are huge.”

Dealing with the issues that can lead people to drugs can reduce their numbers, according to Roberts and The Opportunity Alliance.

“Intentional collaboration on this vast and complex problem will promote efficient use of resources, to help youth across Cumberland County overcome adversities and grow into healthy and engaged adults,” Senior Vice President of Programs Louise Marsden said.

The grant will specifically be focused on the city’s Brown Street neighborhood, the East Bayside, Riverton and Parkside neighborhoods of Portland, the Redbank/Brickhill neighborhood of South Portland and Lower Main Street in Bridgton.

“We are doing assessments to see what the neighborhoods are like, if there is violence, what there is for alcohol retail, just building data for specific neighborhoods. There will be a lot of data mining, interviewing, learning what people think in these neighborhoods,” O’Connor said.

With data from each of their communities, the hope is then to build programs and outreach tailored to their given needs.

Another aspect of the grant is to address drug use prevention in schools.

“We are proposing creating a behavioral health learning committee. Before we start with that, we would do an assessment of the school districts to see what they already have,” O’Connor said.

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