Over the past five years, with Phoenix Kawamoto at the helm thanks to a Drug-Free Communities grant from the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Greater New Paltz Community Partnership (GNPCP) has attained a high profile as a coalition of organizations that gets things done. The Partnership has proven its value to the community in myriad ways, stepping up to the plate most visibly in the immediate aftermath of the drug-fueled suicide last fall of New Paltz High School student Maya Gold. But after the grant runs out at the end of September, GNPCP will once again be rudderless. And according to a number of community leaders who work closely with local youth at risk for substance abuse, that’s not a good thing.
Although GNPCP had nominally existed for five or six years before Kawamoto came on board, there was no central point of coordination, according to New Paltz Youth Center director Jim Tinger. “The biggest part for me has been the collaboration. In my 22 years of working for the town, there hasn’t been anything getting everybody at the same table working for the same cause. Before Phoenix, everybody was doing their own programs. They weren’t really talking to each other,” he says. “Now, everybody is in wild support of the Partnership. Everybody is on the same page, working for the same goal.”
As chair of the Steering Committee for GNPCP, Tinger has been distributing sample letters of support to the 185 or so members of the Partnership and others who have benefited from its work. The members include municipal and county governments, social service agencies, law enforcement and probation officers, schoolteachers and administrators, SUNY New Paltz, health and mental health professionals, community organizations, concerned parents — pretty much anyone in the county who works with youth who are vulnerable to the current epidemic of harmful-but-easily-obtainable controlled substances.
And the community has begun to respond, with letters pouring in from a variety of important players demanding that a new position be funded to ensure that Kawamoto remains the keystone of this painstakingly built coalition — what New Paltz Police Department chief Joseph Snyder terms “the captain of the ship.” Chief Snyder cited a list of successful education and prevention programs, including the Med Return™ Drug Collection Unit located in the Police Department lobby, provided by the Partnership. “Since its installation we have collected more than 1,000 pounds of unused medication for destruction,” the chief wrote to New Paltz town supervisor Neil Bettez. “We have conducted yearly TIPs training classes for alcohol servers using materials purchased by the Partnership. We have conducted numerous compliance checks to address the underage sale of alcohol and participated in workshops aimed at the prescription drug and opioid use in our community. The most recent event, ‘Be in the Know,’ was so well-received the Partnership has been asked to conduct it again.”
Another ardent supporter of Kawamoto’s continuing leadership of GNPCP is New Paltz Central School District superintendent Maria Rice. “The success of the Partnership is due to Phoenix Kawamoto,” Rice wrote in a recent letter to Bettez. “She has utilized her skills, expertise, creativity and leadership abilities to create innovative, comprehensive prevention strategies that are impacting our students and their parents, as well as creating a shift within the school community’s culture.” She praised Kawamoto’s coordination of a “community grief response effort” immediately following the death of Maya Gold, and also cited a variety of successful programs in the schools, including Stress Busters workshops, a Peer-to-Peer Training program for freshmen, Step UP Bystander Intervention Training, Mental Health First Aid Training for Adolescents and a Drugged and Distracted Driving Prevention initiative.
For his part, Supervisor Bettez called Kawamoto “a huge asset to the town…. Once we lose her, we’ll never get her back. Someone’s going to snap her up somewhere else.” The various groups involved in the coalition are “more effective working together at doing what they’re doing,” he told the New Paltz Times. “Her work has averted who knows how many tragedies…. People in the trenches, like Chief Snyder and Maria Rice, know without a doubt how valuable Phoenix is.”
But coming up with funding at the local level to replace a federal grant is no easy matter — especially when no money has been budgeted for such expenditures in the current year. “We’re looking under the couch cushions,” says Bettez. “I’ve reached out to Maria Rice, Tim Rogers and Mike Hein, and we’ve had a bunch of brainstorming sessions. It’s really hard to get money for a salary right now. We’ve looked into a bunch of different grants, but we’re not sure if the turnaround time is fast enough. We’re looking for bridge funds from the county, or even the state.”
Part of the problem, Kawamoto explains, is the variance between the federal fiscal year (October 1 to September 30) and the fiscal year observed by county and municipal governments, which is based on the calendar year. Although the Drug-Free Communities project director is providing some guidance in identifying alternative federal funding streams, there will inevitably be at least a three-month gap. “There are things I want to be doing. We’re ready to build the next level of the house, so to speak. We know we can go further — but we can’t until we know whether the resources will be there. This is the time when I’d be booking for the fall. People are asking for services and I don’t know what to tell them.”
Fortunately, as part of the reporting requirements for the grant, Kawamoto has been amassing data testifying to GNPCP’s efficacy and its progress toward meeting its two primary goals for the funding period: to develop the coalition’s infrastructure and capacity and to reduce substance abuse among young people. But for all the project’s successes, many needs in the community still go unmet. “A lot of what I do as coordinator and director cannot be absorbed” if her position vanishes, Kawamoto says. “It’s not something that other organizations can pick up. It’s a real challenge.”
Meanwhile, Supervisor Bettez is encouraging more community members to be vocal in their support of continuing the coordinator position. “Write letters to me, to the New Paltz Times. I know what the right thing is, but it’s hard to do the right thing when we’re so tight with money and the tax cap. Let’s get a groundswell of support and force us to do the right thing …. It’s an uphill battle.”