The Riverhead Community Awareness Program Community Coalition (CAP) annual meet and greet gathering Thursday night featured a lot of the same faces as last year’s event.
There were law enforcement representatives, including Riverhead Town Police Chief David Hegermiller, as well as local elected officials, Town Board members, teachers and church leaders who have all worked together to reduce alcohol and substance abuse.
At this year’s event at the Riverhead firehouse, a new facet of the organization took center stage — the children.
The Riverhead CAP Youth Coalition — which formed last August and consists of Riverhead students and local teens — has already made a huge impact, said Cynthia Redmond, a community prevention specialist for the nonprofit.
During the event, members of the coalition set up booths to and discussed their initiatives with others.
The group meets once a month and has organized public awareness events such as “Sticker Shock” — a campaign where police officers and students team up to place warning labels on alcoholic beverages warning parents not to purchase them for underage youths.
When executive director Felicia Scocozza asked the group of teens about the law, they quickly chimed back in unison the potential penalties: up to a $1,000 fine and potentially as much as a year in jail.
Students have also recorded public service announcements about a drug drop-off box at Riverhead Police Department headquarters. Six teens recently recorded additional PSAs about the risks posed by marijuana use. Those recordings will play on BEACH 101.7FM in a couple of weeks, she said.
“The work they’re doing is just so vital,” Ms. Redmond added.
The student’s efforts also earned praise from state Senator Ken LaValle, who was among the first to provide funding for Riverhead CAP in its earliest days more than 30 years ago.
“The kids are really crucial,” Mr. LaValle said. “It’s a true coalition and this is a very serious time and a very serious problem … You’re going to deal and solve with the problem locally.”
Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter also congratulated the group of teens for taking an active role in reducing and preventing substance abuse among their peers.
While other communities “have their heads in the sand,” he said, students and leaders in Riverhead are taking the right steps to combat drug and alcohol abuse.
Vincent Cederna, a member of the coalition, said he believes the group can “save lives.”
“In a society where drugs are so easily accessible, we want to give our peers the confidence to say no, to avoid that first cigarette, drink or high,” he said.
Fellow group member and local student Nina Geraci agreed and described the coalition as “a positive influence.”
“Every activity we do, we become closer and closer to our goal of a drug-free community,” she said.
According to student surveys conducted by Riverhead CAP between the years 2008 to 2014, the use of marijuana, alcohol and cigarettes are all down among eighth graders. However, binge drinking and alcohol and marijuana use continues to grow in the high school among seniors graders.
The coalition is one part of the larger Riverhead CAP Community Coalition for Safe and Drug-Free Youth team, which is a group of local stakeholders working together to lower drug abuse by Riverhead’s students. The organization is being funded by a five-year, $125,000 federal grant.
For years, Ms. Scocozza said, the group focused on one-on-one individual programs. Now, the nonprofit’s coalition has shifted to broader policy changes. The group counted the Town Board’s new regulations about alcohol at public events as a major success, with data from student surveys showing public events and festivals are the second-leading place where underage drinking occurs.
Riverhead CAP has also made a push this past year to publish its materials in other languages, especially Spanish.
“We want to make sure language isn’t the reason people aren’t getting our message,” said Riverhead CAP’s community prevention specialist Kelly Miloski.
The nonprofit is always looking for more members of the community to volunteer, she added.
“Your time is worth a lot for us,” she said.
The group also took time to recognize volunteer and Riverhead police officer Byron Perez, who has used his bilingualism to bridge gaps and educate Hispanic children.
Upcoming plans for Riverhead CAP includes drug take-back events to get unused prescription medications out of local cabinets and its Stay No to Drugs march on June 10.
Photo: Members of the Riverhead CAP Youth Coalition pose for a selfie during the nonprofit’s annual meet and greet event. (Credit: Paul Squire)