Innovative coalition to battle opioid abuse in Seaford, Delaware

When individuals, organizations and communities collaborate to solve pressing local issues, innovative ideas result.

A coalition of committed community partners is changing things in Seaford, Delaware where 11 students from Seaford High School were recruited and trained as peer-to-peer educators to reach students and share proven life skills that will empower for middle school students to make smarter choices. “Sussex Goes Purple” is  part of a new, national initiative called Well Connected Communities — an effort to cultivate wellness across the country.

Sussex County Health Coalition led the effort, securing a grant which covers the mentor training, a stipend for the student mentors at the beginning and end of the year-long program.   

National 4-H Council and the Cooperative Extension System, which includes land grant institutions like the University of Delaware, are partners in the coalition equipping volunteer leaders to help their neighbors be healthier at every stage of life. With the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated solely to health, the goal is to cultivate wellness and foster a “culture of health” in communities across America.

Seaford High School senior Tyesha Seymore heard about an opportunity to reduce the rising rate of opioid use in her community and  jumped at the chance to make a difference. According to the State of Delaware Department of Health and Social Services, Delaware ranks ninth in the nation in drug overdose death rates. In substance abuse prevention programs, early education is viewed as extremely important.

“Since I am younger, I feel like I can connect better with the youth in our area,” said Seymore. “When I go to middle school to teach these kids, I hope they become leaders and spread the word.”

Seymore, along with 10 other Seaford High School students, spent three days in August training with University of Delaware faculty and staff to become peer educators and health ambassadors. 

In Delaware, the Sussex County Health Coalition identified Seaford as an innovator community — looking at how health needs of the community can be addressed in new, creative ways. The youth health ambassador and peer educator model is an example of that.

“Ten of the 11 students came from an existing school club structure — National FFA,” says Gina Crist, community health specialist with UD Cooperative Extension. “The camaraderie and regular meeting space presented an ideal environment for follow-up with the students as the effort progresses.”

Once trained, the Seaford 11 will deliver Botvin LifeSkills Training (LST), a nationally recognized anti-substance abuse curriculum. Traditionally, Botvin is offered as a provider training model, with Delaware 4-H educators presenting the evidence-based program to adult teachers for presentation in middle school classrooms.

A new model

“We wanted to determine if youth ambassadors would be more effective in delivering the message than adult teachers,” Crist said. “Now we are rolling it out, keeping the fidelity of the curriculum intact, but using a new teaching method.”

As the first model in the country to use direct peer-to-peer education, everyone involved in the effort is eager to see the results. Pre- and post-tests will be analyzed by Botvin at the national level.

The first day of the Seaford students’ training focused on the Botvins LifeSkills Training Curriculum taught by Delaware 4-H Botvins educator Lindsay Hughes. Botvin’s interactive lessons emphasizes feedback, role playing, mindfulness and specific life skills designed to empower students to resist the pressures that often accompany making a wrong decision regarding violence, tobacco, alcohol or drug abuse. Botvin LST boasts a 75 percent reduction in drug us from their program.  

“The students were great to work with and worked well together,” said Hughes. “I am excited to see the results from the peer to peer teaching that the youth will be participating in this school year.”    

On day two, Crist provided “Ages and Stages” classroom management techniques for teaching younger students. The Seaford 11 learned about diversity and different learning styles.

On the final day of training, the students heard real life stories of addiction and recovery. Sussex County Health Coalition’s Peggy Geisler and Lisa Coldiron, who introduced Seaford Goes Purple — a drug-free campaign launching in Seaford. The students were encouraged to extend their roles beyond the classroom. Both presenters encouraged the students to extend their roles beyond the classroom as community leaders and health ambassadors in the Well Connected Community initiative — building the force of volunteers in the community working to make a change.

The students all volunteered for the effort and only later learned that they will also receive a stipend (due to funding from the Sussex County Health Coalition).  

“I hope that I can prepare our younger peers for the future and to make better decisions,” said senior Mackenzie Brown.

UD Cooperative Extension Michelle Rodgers, who also serves as the Well Connected Communities program director at the national level, traveled to Seaford to thank the students personally for their involvement.  

“Our preliminary reach shows that it is far more effective, and makes way much more difference when peers hear from peers,” Rodgers said. “You are real kids and going to talk to real kids. You are some of the first in the country doing this, and the work you are doing is really important. We are going to be following the work you do, which will be a model for the rest of the country.”

In addition to grant monies, Sussex County Health Coalition connected with sponsors who include the Delaware Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, Discover Bank, Highmark, AmeriHealth, Nanticoke, Beebe and Bayhealth hospitals.