Partners for Prevention: Helping Kids Make Healthy Choices


By Brett Larson, March 6, 2015

Travelers on Hwy. 169 might have noticed two billboards — one south of Garrison and one in the Vineland area — with a message to parents: “Parents! Talk to us about not using alcohol.”

The billboards are the work of Mille Lacs Area Partners for Prevention, a coalition of concerned citizens from Nay Ah Shing, Onamia, and Isle who want to make a difference in their community by encouraging young people to avoid alcohol and other drugs.

MAPP was founded in December 2011 through a grant awarded to Rum River Health Services of Princeton. When that organization dissolved, the project was picked up by Onamia Schools.

The coalition currently has membership from all three school districts, Mille Lacs Health System, Mille Lacs County, and the Mille Lacs Band. Law enforcement, parents, business and community members are also represented.

Band employees Amanda Nickaboine and Byron Ninham were elected chair and co-chair of the coalition for 2015. Geri Pohlkamp, from Onamia School District, is secretary/treasurer.

Amanda said she has been involved with the coalition since the beginning in 2011, and she has been impressed with how invested everyone has been. “Most of the people involved have been here since the beginning,” Amanda said. “Throughout all the changes our coalition has seen, we have remained resilient and dedicated to the work.”

“MAPP plays an important part in prevention in our communities by starting a dialogue on prevention models, ideas, and recent statistics throughout the areas of service,” Byron said. “A potential pathway to change may just be starting a conversation with young people, adults, community members and correction of misperceptions from community members.”

The permanent staff of the grant includes Amber Kent, coordinator, and Jamie Root-Larsen, assistant coordinator and media specialist, whose offices are in the Rolf Olsen Center in Onamia.

The group meets monthly and welcomes new members. They are currently looking to increase representation from parents, clergy and other sectors. The coalition meets the last Tuesday of every month from noon to 1 p.m. at the Rolf Olsen Center in Onamia.

Positive community norms
The group’s main focus is on changing misperceptions in the community about teen alcohol and drug use. The hope is that kids will be less likely to engage in those behaviors if they know the facts: that most kids in the community don’t drink and use drugs and would prefer not to use them, and they would support their friends in their decisions to avoid alcohol and drugs.

Coalition Chair Amanda Nickaboine said, “Our positive messaging with the billboards and posters is one of my favorite parts of our coalition. I think adolescents already know what negative consequences are for underage alcohol and drug use, but it is still not a deterrent from using. I think there has always been that thinking, when it comes to drinking, that ‘everyone’ is doing it and that it’s what the cool kids do. But through the positive messaging students come to find out that those beliefs are not true.”

This model, referred to as “Positive Community Norms Framework,” is the brainchild of Jeff Linkenbach of Montana Institute. Its effectiveness has been demonstrated in communities that have implemented the model to address all sorts of health and safety issues, from child abuse to traffic accidents.

MAPP is funded by a grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division. MAPP is part of the second cohort of grant recipients. The first grants were awarded in 2006, and the communities implementing the program are seeing positive outcomes. “It’s a grant that has worked for other communities in the past and is continuing to work,” said MAPP coordinator Amber Kent.

Spirit and science
According to the website, “PCN fosters cultural transformation by addressing many different audiences throughout the community for the purpose of growing positive norms and thereby improving health and safety.”

Amber said the Montana Institute stresses a “spirit-science-action and return” cycle. “Create a positive spirit, look at the data, then do something.” The “return” refers to reflecting on what has been done, making adjustments, and starting again.

The Mille Lacs project began with a series of extensive surveys to determine patterns of alcohol and drug abuse in the area.

Students have taken annual surveys since the project began and will continue to do so for the five-year duration of the grant. The survey asks students about perceptions and their own substance use, and also how they perceive others’ use. The survey is designed to weed out inconsistent answers that would prove to be dishonest or exaggerated, which lends credibility to the results.

Another reason to trust the results of the surveys: they are in line with statewide and national trends.

Project staff also conducted 100 one-to-one or face-to-face interviews with teachers, parents, law enforcement, and business owners. Those interviews will be repeated after five years to get a sense of change in community perceptions. Amanda Nickaboine conducted several of the interviews with probation officers, and the information collected has proven to be very useful.

In addition to showing that students overestimate the amount their classmates drink, the surveys also showed other misperceptions. For example, law enforcement and parents both underestimate the other group’s interest in combatting underage drinking. Both groups — just like students — also overestimate the amount of underage drinking in the community.

The results of the surveys are used to fashion messages and promote activities that will help to prevent or delay the onset of alcohol use among teens.

The focus on delaying onset is based on science. If a student drinks at the age of 15 they are four times more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs as an adult. The longer you can delay it, the greater the chance they will never have a problem.

MAPP coordinator Amber Kent said, “The theory behind that is if we can change misperceptions we can change behavior.”

Hence the billboards, which are part of the group’s mission geared toward correcting misperceptions.

Amanda said, “Right now is a great time to be involved in the coalition because we finally get to work on all the things that were imagined at the very start. It’s great to finally see the action beginning. We have committees formed that will focus on certain areas of importance to the coalition, and most members have picked a committee to be on.“

One of the group’s most significant accomplishments, according to Amber, is bringing the three communities together to create a single vision and mission to work toward the same goals for the youth around the region.

In addition to the billboards, the group has created posters to be used in the schools and has put together active youth groups in the Nay Ah Shing, Onamia, and Isle communities.

All messages need to be pilot tested before they can be used. The Montana Institute makes sure the messages are inclusive and inoffensive — in keeping with the focus on a “positive spirit.”

“The statements that do get printed on the billboards and posters are not made up,” Amanda said. “They come from the surveys taken by the students, and they are very well thought out and pilot tested before being printed.”

The coalition recently surveyed Mille Lacs Health System medical professionals to access their needs for addressing teen use. Past surveys have shown that healthcare professionals are the most trusted for information on drugs and alcohol, but they are also rarely spoken with on the topic. MAPP hopes to change that by bringing doctors and nurses into the conversation and supplying them with the materials they need to address the topic.

The Onamia, Isle, and Nay Ah Shing youth groups engage in many separate activities and do a few things together each year. The groups are student led but adult guided.

Mille Lacs Band youth coordinator Shawn Willis is leading the Isle group, and teachers Renee Athman and Gregg Rutter are leading the Nay Ah Shing group. Amber and Jamie Root-Larsen are currently leading the Onamia group until a permanent leader can be found.

One project youth have been participating in is called “Photovoice.” Youth go out in the community with cameras to take pictures illustrating hopes and concerns and strengths and weaknesses. Future projects for the kids are based on finding ways to remedy the areas of concern and enhancing the strengths.

MAPP’s messaging hopes to help parents have conversations with their kids about drinking and drugs. Again, it’s based on science: Eighty-three percent of youth report that parents are the leading influence in their decision to not drink alcohol. (Source: The Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, February 2012)

MAPP is also implementing the Project Northland curriculum in Onamia and Isle.

Next on the group’s agenda is a public forum to be held March 31 (see sidebar).

“There is still work to do, and the fun is just beginning,” Amanda said. “Come to our next meeting to see how you can be involved!”

*Mille Lacs Area Partners for Prevention will hold a community meeting March 31 from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Rolf Olsen Center in Onamia.

Dinner, dessert and childcare will be provided.

For more information, contact Amber Kent at

MAPP welcomes all community members to the meeting and to the Alliance for Drug Free Youth.*