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Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse

February 28, 2020 - 4:38pm

If, as Ben Franklin so wisely stated, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” then the Prevention Department at Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse is a heavyweight in the effort to keep young and old alike from the ever-present dangers of alcohol and drugs.

“We offer cradle-to-grave services, from in-school programs to moms who are pregnant to seniors dealing with prescription drug management,” said Sherri Bensley, GCASA’s assistant director of prevention. “Our philosophy is based on prevention science – programs that are research-based, data-driven and outcome-focused.”

Bensley, a Medina resident with 15 years of prevention education experience under her belt, outlined the various services provided by the GCASA Prevention team, a group of seven educators and a secretary that serves Genesee and Orleans counties.

And she is quick to express her appreciation for the employees she supervises.

“Our collaboration is fantastic,” she said. “Really, it’s the best prevention staff in the world. They are passionate about their work and are good at what they do.”

And that dedication is fueled by the commitment that Bensley has made as a GCASA employee -- starting as a prevention educator in Orleans County, coordinator of the highly successful Responsible Server Training and Children of Addiction programs, and assistant director for two years in Orleans before being promoted to her current position.

“I’m motivated by the opportunity to help a young person or family stay clear of the problems caused by alcohol, tobacco and drug use and, beyond that, playing a role – whether big or small – in seeing people break free from substance use or addiction,” she said.

Toward that end, Bensley pointed to around a dozen different programs that GCASA offers.

Too Good for Drugs and Too Good for Violence target elementary and middle school pupils; SPORT, a one-on-one classroom initiative, focuses upon high school students’ overall wellness.

Teen Intervene is a fee-based program that assists school teachers and administrators in getting youth back on track after problems arise due to alcohol and drug use, and Active Parenting Now and Active Parenting for Teens help parents cope and manage difficult situations.

Other Prevention programs include the following:

-- Accountability Circles: Based on restorative justice principles, this program serves youth who are ticketed for underage drinking or break their school’s code of conduct. They provide education regarding the dangers of drinking and drug use, as well as allow participants to hear community members explain how they are affected by underage substance use.

-- Children of Addictions Support Group: A free program for children ages 6-16 whose lives have been hindered by a family member’s or caretaker’s use of alcohol or other drugs. Participants attend sessions over six weeks aimed to helping them develop healthy coping skills and understand the disease of addiction.

-- DWI Victim Impact Panel: Open to anyone convicted of DWI offenses in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties, fee-for-service VIP sessions feature volunteer speakers who address the consequences of what happens when people drink alcohol and get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.

-- Responsible Server Training: This is a three-hour fee-for-service class, certified by the New York State Liquor Authority that educates employees of bars, restaurants, supermarkets, convenience stores, liquor stores and other establishments that sell or serve alcoholic beverages.

“We have been offering this for quite some time and have trained hundreds of employees all across the state,” Bensley said. “Owners of establishments that sell or serve alcohol understand the severity of serving to a minor or serving someone who is visibly intoxicated.”

GCASA’s Prevention staff also promotes several “environmental strategies” that are designed to reach the community as a whole, instead of centering upon individuals. These include the Underage Drinking Tipline (1-800-851-1932), Project Sticker Shock (putting warning labels on cases of beer, for example) and placing Red Ribbon Week literature in schools and banners along city streets.

Currently, GCASA has contracts with seven schools – Batavia, Byron-Bergen, Oakfield-Alabama, Notre Dame/St. Joseph’s, Le Roy, Medina and Lyndonville – and “are always looking to join forces with more schools,” Bensley said.

Regardless of its contract status, GCASA conducts Prevention Needs Assessment surveys in all Genesee County schools and in four Orleans County schools every two years in an attempt to gauge the incidence and prevalence of alcohol, drug and tobacco use among students.

“The PNA survey is an evidence-based endeavor, and we keep track of the results for several years,” Bensley explained. “We also encourage feedback and set up focus groups as required by the state Office of Addiction Services and Supports.

GCASA’s Prevention department has expanded its services in recent years to deal with the heroin epidemic, starting a free opioid overdose prevention training to help people learn to recognize signs of an opioid overdose, understand steps to be taken to prevent death, and learn how to administer naloxone (NARCAN training) to reverse an opioid overdose.

While Bensley touts her staff’s commitment as the key to numerous success stories, she said one of the biggest challenges is making the public aware that “we’re out there – that we’re on the second floor (of the GCASA campus at 430 E. Main St.)” as well as having a distinct presence at the Albion office, in several school districts and throughout the community.

“That, along with funding and parental involvement, is one of the hardest hurdles,” she said. “Educating parents is sometimes very difficult, because they’re busy. But the most dangerous thing is when a parent says, ‘Not my kid.’ For every parent who says that, there’s a kid who is struggling.”

For more information about GCASA’s Prevention services, contact Bensley at 585-331-8742 or send an email to [email protected].

Photo at top:

GCASA PREVENTION TEAM: Assistant Director of Prevention Sherri Bensley (middle) is surrounded by her team at GCASA, from left, Diana Fulcomer, Communications & Development Director Shannon Ford, Christen Ferraro, Carol Nicometo, Kristen Gombos, Diane Klos, Sheila Harding and Elizabeth Novak.

Disclosure: Story by Mike Pettinella, GCASA publicist.

November 23, 2019 - 1:00pm


The success of individuals and organizations working to prevent drug and alcohol use in the teen and young adult population hinges upon having access to science-based statistics that reveal current trends. All too often, however, misinformation and misconceptions cloud the landscape and hamper attempts to achieve effective change.

In an effort to give community coalitions the best chance to reach their goals of reducing drug, alcohol and tobacco use among middle school, high school and college students, the NYS Office of Addiction Supports and Services have placed six “prevention resource centers” around the state.

One of those centers is the Western New York Prevention Resource Center and its office is located at the Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse’s main campus at 430 E. Main St. in Batavia.

The WNY PRC, under the direction of Sharon Koenig since 2013, assists community coalitions in the eight counties of Western New York (Genesee, Orleans, Wyoming, Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Niagara and Erie), providing technical trainings and workshops, pertinent literature and the expertise of a Community Development Specialist.

Her staff includes Dawn Sagerman, senior community development specialist, and Sharon O’Neil, community development specialist assistant.

“We work with stakeholders in the development of new coalitions and support established community coalitions, with a focus on the Strategic Prevention Framework – a public health, outcome-based prevention approach,” Koenig said. “The SPF is a five-step, dynamic, data-driven approach that helps coalitions move toward the goal of reducing substance abuse, risky behaviors and consequences in their communities.”

Seven Points to Success

Koenig outlined the SPF’s seven areas that are fundamental to setting a coalition’s strategy:

  • Assessment: Collection of data to decide on the most pressing issue that can be successfully addressed with available resources, with three key components – identifying and understanding the population’s needs, determining necessary resources and assessing whether the community is ready to tackle the issue.
  • Capacity: Building the coalition (people, available finances, organizational chart) to carry out the plan to reduce substance use, including training and technical assistance provided by the PRC.
  • Planning: Developing a strategy (logic model) aimed at meeting community needs and creating community-level change.
  • Implementation: Putting the plan, strategies, programs, policies and practices into action.
  • Evaluation: Efforts are evaluated in terms of process, impact and outcome, with the results used to make ongoing adjustments and improvements.

The SPF has a pair of key concepts at its center and both must be incorporated into every step:

  1. Cultural Competence: Behaviors, attitudes and policies that enable coalitions to make a difference in culturally diverse environments;
  2. Coalition Sustainability: The capacity to keep the coalition going long enough to achieve its long-term goals.

Fueled By Scientific Data

Koenig said that while prevention providers (such as GCASA) primarily focus on change at the individual level, the WNYPRC in conjunction with community coalitions concentrates on environmental or broad-based strategies that can impact a large number of people.

“The PRC strives for policy change and reduction in the percentages of those using drugs, alcohol and tobacco based on scientific data,” she said. “Without the data, it’s just another person’s opinion.”

Another part of the PRC’s mission – one that is in the forefront of late – is managing and dispelling those opinions and misperceptions that can trigger strategies that fail to hit their intended targets.

Earlier this month, the WNYPRC sponsored a full-day training in Hamburg that centered upon using a social norms approach to successfully reducing youth risk behaviors.

About 50 people representing community coalitions, substance abuse prevention agencies, law enforcement, schools and the National Guard (a partner with the PRCs around the state) attended the presentation by H. Wesley Perkins, Ph.D., professor of Sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva.

Perkins is a leader in the “social norms approach” field, having conducted surveys of tens of thousands of college, high school and middle school students over the past two decades to evaluate how perceptions of drug and alcohol use compare to the reality of the same.

“Students misperceive their peers pretty badly,” said Perkins, backing up his claim with survey data that shows that students perceive that their peers are engaging in risky behavior much more than what the actual numbers show.

Not Everyone is Doing It

The numbers from a 1996 study of 5,000 students at a New York college show that the perception was that 89 percent of students drank alcohol twice a month and that 25 percent drank daily. The actual numbers revealed that 60 percent drank alcohol twice a month and that only 5 percent drank daily.

Similar outcomes were obtained when it came to marijuana use, hallucinogens and cocaine, said Perkins, who went on to provide several more examples of surveys that produced the same degree of misperception.

“The same phenomena occur time and time again,” he said. “For example, a survey showed that 25 to 30 percent engage in bullying. The perception is that it is 70 percent or more.”

Perkins said that a “naïve” response to the data would be that the problem isn’t that significant, but that misses the point. Rather, the best response, he said, is to devise strategies, such as traditional and social media campaigns, that reflect the reality of the situation.

“The causes of these misperceptions are psychological … we’re more accurate about our own situation than others’; social psychological … much of our conversation is focused on the extreme; and cultural … as entertainment, advertising, news and health advocacy media focus on the bad behavior of a small percentage,” he said.

Truth or Consequences

Perkins said the consequences of these misperceptions include a “reign of error” that controls our behavior, use and abuse increases if young people think it is expected of them, those in opposition to risky behavior are discourage from speaking out and intervention by others declines.

“The carriers of misperception contribute to the problem,” he said. “It is contagious.”

The most effective social norms model leads to a healthy dose of reality, Perkins said, and it incorporates identifying the actual vs. the misperceived, intervention, less exaggerated misperceptions and a focus on the “healthy majority.”

“Print media campaigns need to accentuate the actual norms – most aren’t engaging in the risky behavior – and then there needs to be peer education program and workshops for the targeted risk groups,” he said. “Beyond that, new student orientation presentations, counseling interventions, curriculum infusion and electronic multimedia are effective.”

Perkins and his colleagues have put his theory to the test, with encouraging positive results, he said.

In the first 18 months of one campaign, advancing positive messages such as “70 percent of us (students) don’t drink,” Perkins said surveys showed that: frequent heavy drinking dropped by 21 percent; property damage decreased by 36 percent; those missing class went down by 31 percent; unprotected sex decreased by 40 percent; and inefficient work fell by 25 percent.

Applying This to WNY

The professor said that these social norm techniques can be applied at various levels of education and to groups outside of the school settings, explaining that subsequent campaigns and surveys showed similar outcomes at several colleges and “across varied demographic profiles.”

“Social norms are most effective when there are clear, positive norm messages, credible data, the absence of competing scare messages, a high dosage of message, multiple strategies and a broad student population,” Perkins said.

Koenig said this is important to the mission of the WNYPRC, which can use the information from Perkins’ presentation to help move the needle in areas of concern for local coalitions.

“The fact that Dr. Perkins stressed getting good data, specific to the intended target audience, meshes well with the objectives of the PRC,” she said. “Obtaining a representative sample size and conducting surveys on a regular basis, and specifying frequency of use, quantity consumed, the context of consumption, the negative consequences and the protective behaviors are factors that we can address.”

To learn more about social norms, go to alcoholeducationproject.org or youthhealthsafety.org.

More information about the WNY PRC can be obtained here, or by sending an email to Koenig at [email protected].

Photo at top: WNY Prevention Resource Center staff, from left, Sharon O'Neil, Sharon Koenig and Dawn Sagerman, with Prof. H. Wesley Perkins.

Disclosure: Story written by Mike Pettinella, GCASA publicist.

June 20, 2019 - 1:06pm

bennett.jpgRebuffed by the City of Batavia, the leader of Genesee/Orleans Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse is “moving in a different direction” to find a location for an activities gathering place for recovering addicts.

GCASA Executive Director John Bennett said today that he is looking at sites in the Town of Batavia, specifically mentioning the former Bohn’s Restaurant on Clinton Street Road, to house what he calls a “recovery recreation center.”

“It would be a place where those dealing with drug and alcohol addiction would receive support through social, recreational, fitness and sober living activities by connecting with peers, friends and family who both accept them and understand their situation,” Bennett said. “It all fits in with our pledge to try and save lives.”

GCASA’s attempt to place the recovery center in the former North Pole Restaurant (prior to that, the St. Nicholas Social Club) at 241-243 South Swan St. was met with strong opposition last month, both from City Council members and people living in that neighborhood.

Subsequently, City officials sent a letter to Bennett stating that since the area is zoned R-2 Residential, it would not be a good fit for the recovery center.

Bennett said GCASA has decided against any further action involving the City, other than asking City Manager Martin Moore if he could find another use for the building or help the agency find a buyer.

“We had to buy the building – there is no 'out clause' – so we’re hoping that it could be used for something else, maybe for teens,” said Bennett, noting that the Swan Street property does have variances for philanthropic and restaurant uses.

Contacted by phone today, Moore said that he will be talking to members of his staff, primarily those involved with economic development, about the use and/or sale of the building, but had “nothing definitive” to report at this time.

With South Swan Street out of the picture, Bennett has turned to the Town of Batavia. He said he met with the Town Board on Wednesday, and came away encouraged -- looking forward to getting something done sooner rather than later.

“The Town Board was amazing; very insightful and kind, and displayed an understanding of addiction,” Bennett said.

He said that he has looked at a couple commercial sites and the industrial park (in the Town). The former Bohn’s Restaurant is zoned Commercial, a plus for this type of project.

A sign on the wall has the selling price at $250,000, but GCASA has not put in an offer yet, Bennett said, adding that the agency’s goal is to purchase a building.

Bennett provided this reporter with a flier listing examples of events and activities at the proposed recovery center.

They include community cleanup and community garden projects; fitness activities (yoga, hikes, runs, biking, basketball, martial arts); art classes; peer support; cooking and nutrition classes; mutual aid and self-help meetings; games and live music, and special events during holidays.

“We have set up a CRPA (Certified Recovery Peer Advocate) program through the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, and currently have 18 of them trained (to assist recovering addicts),” he said. “We also have relationships with hospitals in both counties and with the jails through the PAARI program (Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative).”

Statistics offered by Bennett show that Genesee County has one of the highest opioid overdose rates in the state and is high on the list of deaths due to drug/alcohol abuse with 34 deaths per 100,000 people in 2017.

OASAS extended a grant to GCASA for the recovery center, and is working with the local agency to push back the deadline, which originally was set at July 1, Bennett said.

While disappointed in the City’s stance regarding the South Swan Street location, Bennett said he's more upset by comments made by some residents about those afflicted with serious alcohol and drug problems.

“The unfortunate thing is how they painted a picture of people in recovery … things like they will lower our property values and we won’t be able to let our children out,” he said. “These are people like you and I. Some of my closest friends are in long-term recovery and they’re great people.

“Since then, I have received a lot of phone calls from people in recovery on the Southside – and they want their neighbors, who aren’t aware of their situations, to know they are good people.”

Photo: John Bennett, GCASA executive director

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