The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Suncoast is teaming up with the Pinellas County School Board and the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office to bring programming dedicated to opioid education and prevention to all 22 Pinellas County middle schools.
“There are very few organizations that have the national resources and the focus to work with [the middle school] population,” says Freddy Williams, chief executive officer of Boys & Girls Clubs of the Suncoast.
Initially, the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Suncoast developed programming at Azalea Middle School, in St. Petersburg.
“We talked to the families. We talked to community members. We heard about every reason a program could not work [at that school.] There was a lack of consistency and a lack of transportation. They needed food, they needed qualified teachers. So, what we did is we combated every single thing,” Williams says. “We provided before school programs at Azalea Middle School, during school programs and after school programs and we picked the kids up from their homes in the morning and then we drove the kids home in the evening. We tried to eliminate every barrier.”
During the pandemic, and shortly thereafter, the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Suncoast found success in this approach at Azalea. The next step was to see how to expand what worked there and take it to other middle schools in the area.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri happens to sit on the board for the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Suncoast. He had shared with Williams that a persistent problem that he was seeing in Pinellas County, reflected in surrounding counties in the region, was the rise of opioid abuse in teenagers.
“All of us got together to figure out what a solution could look like and that’s where this program was born,” Williams explains.
By leveraging the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Suncoast, a perceived “fun brand” by young people, an educational and prevention program for middle school students was born.
“Together, we’re shaping a brighter, healthier future for our Pinellas County students,” says Kevin Hendrick, Superintendent of Pinellas County Schools.
The new programming includes education plans, training and tools to combat opioid usage.
“We’re finding ways that we can leverage [our brand] to provide programs at the schools with some disguised learning that allows them to be educated on the dangers but do it in a fun way, productive way, but, most importantly, a research-based way that ensures that there are positive effects,” Williams says.
Middle school is the age sweet spot, experts suggest. Elementary students are too young, and by high school, you could potentially have lost the ability to resonate with students before problems begin.
“In middle school, we’re able to get to [the kids] before they get to high school because it’s much more difficult to turn things around in high school,” Williams says.
The partnerships in place with the Sheriff’s office and the school system are key to bringing this programming to schools across the county.
“There’s so much power in partnership,” Williams says. “When we brought this to the justice department with the federal government, they were just in love with this type of model where you have one of the largest youth development providers in the Tampa Bay region working with the sheriff’s department and the school district.”
The announcement of this new middle school expansion comes a week after the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Suncoast announced a strategic agreement to join forces with Earn to Learn, a Fort Myers-based education program that combines personal finance training, coaching and mentorship with scholarships.
“Working with an organization like Earn to Learn that has a proven model that we were able to bring under our umbrella will allow us to just run with it. Because they already have the contracts with Florida Prepaid they’re able to get matching dollars for every scholarship that they assign to kids. They already have the infrastructure in place where they have a financial education component. And as part of that financial education component, kids open their own 529 plans. And what the research shows with that is one, it helps give kids ‘skin in the game,’” William says.
As the year is ending, the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Suncoast isn’t slowing down. It’s gearing up to kick off 2024 with bigger and bolder initiatives, which will only benefit the next generation to step into the Tampa Bay area workforce.
“The challenges that kids face are extraordinary. We can’t use yesterday’s solutions for tomorrow’s problems. And by doing that, we’re having to think boldly,” Williams says. “We’re having to act in innovative and transformational ways that we ordinarily may not have done before.”