By Peter Gamache, Ph.D. & Jackie Sue Griffin, MBA, MS, Turnaround Life, Inc.
The Hillsborough County Anti-Drug Alliance (HCADA) is a nonprofit in Hillsborough County, Fla., providing education, resources and support for adults, teens and children to prevent drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse. Youth Coordinator Denise Birungi Evans joined HCADA in 2013 after completing her bachelor’s degree in public health. (She’s since completed her master’s degree in public health, while working full-time!)
On paper, Denise’s areas of responsibility within the organization center on working with students to raise awareness of the dangers of tobacco use (including vaping) among their peers. These youth leaders are part of SWAT, Students Working Against Tobacco. As part of a statewide youth organization, Denise works with eight chapters led by volunteer advisors in Hillsborough schools to mobilize, educate and equip Florida youth to educate their peers and policy makers about the need to change social norms related to tobacco and deglamorize Big Tobacco. SWAT includes some 300 kids.
She describes her work as “sharing information that can change their lives” and finds it incredibly meaningful, even if it’s hard to define in typical nonprofit terms like “outcomes.”
“My job is hard to quantify,” Denise says. “It’s hard to justify prevention programs like ours—even though we know they are incredibly impactful—because we can’t say we saved 14 kids from addiction and 12 from drunk driving accidents and 16 from cancer because we prevent underage drinking and tobacco or drug use.”
In action, Denise’s work encompasses so much more than what’s written on her official job description: She is a mentor, counselor and cheerleader.
“Drugs, alcohol and tobacco can limit these kids’ futures,” she says. “My work is to direct them to a brighter future. I encourage them to be an individual, not to follow others—their peers or even their parents—in limiting habits and thoughts, but to discover their own path. ‘Where can you go?’”
Helping her SWAT students find their own paths, she finds herself talking them through critical life decisions including educational options and then helping them apply for scholarships and school loans.
Recently, Denise’s own experiences with her online master’s studies have certainly come in handy, as social distancing and school closings in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic have forced the SWAT advisors and students to get creative about maintaining their meetings.
“It’s been so great to see the advisors and kids finding new solutions—great solutions—to stay connected and active,” she says.
In-person, after-school presentations morphed into video presentations and collages and poster designs shared on social media. After-school, face-to-face meetings weren’t cancelled; they were moved online to platforms like Zoom and Google Hangouts. Because community mobilization efforts and passionate young leaders with an inspiring advocate to follow wait for no pandemic.
During these difficult times, HCADA is making sure to provide the students with resources that go beyond the prescribed mission of SWAT. These resources include tips on how to protect their mental and physical health, support others in recovery and find new ways to connect with far-flung family, classmates and teachers as well as friends while sheltering at home.
For the kids she works with, Denise is more than just a source of information and education; she’s also a source of inspiration and encouragement. And if you need to try to quantify her impact, just count the number of graduation invitations she receives.