Planting Seeds and Watching Them Grow: Community Collaboration in Arizona

At a glance

Three Arizona coalitions are working together to build capacity and reduce substance use in their local communities.

Two people standing in the dessert in Arizona. Photo credit: gettyimages

Way Out West Coalition (WOW)

The Way Out West Coalition is a grassroots, community-based DFC coalition presenting messaging for parents with a special focus on reducing substance use among youth in grades 8-12 in Buckeye, Arizona. WOW's vision is to give every kid in Buckeye the opportunity to live a drug-free life. WOW was formed in 2009 in response to the growing concern about underage drinking and substance use in the community. A group of 10 concerned citizens came together to review the local results of the 2008 Arizona Youth Survey and were shocked to find that Buckeye youth were drinking and using drugs at levels far exceeding the county and state averages. With three out of four Buckeye youth indicating some type of alcohol or drug use in the last 30 days and school resource officers indicating that they had already had 17 drug and alcohol-related incidents in the first four months of the 2008 school year, the group decided to take immediate action.1 The interest and commitment of the community to address youth substance use was evident right from the start. To expand their reach, Larry Tracey, executive director of WOW, decided to work with law enforcement to determine specific areas within the community that may benefit from youth prevention programs. The top two areas in need of substance use prevention services were Peoria and Glendale.

The coalition held initial meetings with both local police departments, and officers confirmed the communities were seeing increases in overdose deaths. The communities supported the establishment of two new coalitions. While preparing to apply for DFC funding, WOW created a framework that intentionally aligns with the DFC application process to ensure eligibility and compliance requirements are met. This same model was used to develop Rise Up Glendale and Peoria Primary Prevention (3PC) and both coalitions were awarded funding from the DFC program. During the first prescription drug takeback, these communities safely discarded 900 lbs of drugs. This event sparked the interest of community members, and they began reaching out to determine how they could become more involved with the coalitions. Larry Tracy stated that it was most exciting to see the entire process unfold, and he looks forward to witnessing the impact that these coalitions will have for years to come. The biggest challenge for him is finding passionate and persistent leaders to run the coalitions. Larry's key advice to anyone considering starting a coalition is, "Find your why and sell it. Funding is key. People come in and out of passion with this work, so having a mainstay person who understands that is important."

Graham County Substance Abuse Coalition

Another coalition in Southeast Arizona, Graham County Substance Abuse Coalition, has also mobilized their community by helping establish Greenlee Substance Coalition in a county on the border with Mexico. It started when a Greenlee County parent contacted Kathy Grimes, Director of Graham County Substance Abuse Coalition, to ask for help with a child using substances. Since Greenlee is one of Arizona's least populous counties, Kathy wanted to dig deeper and determine if substance use was a neglected concern in this area. This one phone call led Kathy to take a deeper look at the challenges affecting the youth in this community. She arranged meetings with young people in the Greenlee community to ask about their knowledge regarding substance use. This community assessment found that many young people were unaware of the consequences of substance use and strategies for prevention. They found a specific need for education about naloxone and the dangers of fentanyl. Most of the young people surveyed in Greenlee were unfamiliar with both harm reduction approaches. After identifying these gaps in knowledge, the coalition began establishing relationships with the school system where they now provide substance use prevention education. They have a peer leadership group that is active in the community educating their peers. Within one year, Greenlee Substance Coalition grew from one to four employees.

Kathy Grimes stated, "Greenlee Substance Coalition now has a president, a board, and plans to launch their own 501c3. We helped plant the seed and now they're growing." Kathy's advice to existing and future coalitions is, "Find the people who are as passionate about the work as you are and form that group.Gather your data to support what you're hoping to accomplish."

Tempe Coalition

About four hours west of Greenlee County, Tempe Coalition is also building capacity by mentoring a neighboring community. Tempe Coalition started as a subcommittee of Tempe Community Council (TCC), a non-profit in the city of Tempe, Arizona, and received a DFC grant in 2009. The coalition's mission is to reduce underage drinking and drug use. Coalition director, Bernadette Coggins, started as a parent volunteer/coalition member and was eventually offered a leadership role. She led a needs assessment using a combination of tools including the local community data from Maricopa County, the City of Tempe, and the State of Arizona (statewide Arizona Youth Survey data) and input from coalition members and partner organizations, schools, and neighborhoods they represent. Data reports for nearby Apache Junction showed an increase in fatal and nonfatal overdose deaths over the past 5 years. The results helped the coalition determine that substance use prevention needed to be prioritized and expanded. Tempe Coalition helped Apache Junction spearhead their substance use prevention and education efforts providing various trainings based on their coalition's experience. Apache now excels in social media engagement and community collaboration. They send out monthly newsletters sharing the latest substance use prevention efforts. They also use X/Twitter and Instagram to reach community members, sharing prevention efforts, but also highlighting events from partner organizations. Bernadette's key piece of advice is, "Find people of influence to show up, endorse, and support the work that you do."

Leaders from each of these Arizona coalitions agree that collaboration is the key to effective change in communities. Each coalition has been able to expand prevention efforts by working with groups and organizations in their local communities. Their collective advice for startup coalitions is to find out what's going on in the community, connect with people from all sectors, and start the conversation about how to improve the lives of community members.