If you want to see Vickie Jones get passionate, talk to her about her community’s youth.
Jones is the youth program director at the S.T.A.N.D. Coalition, a non-profit that is focused on alcohol and drug prevention in Scott County, Tenn. She’s been involved on the non-profit scene here one way or another for more than 20 years. In 1999, she was writing a grant for the community’s women’s shelter. In it, she included a little factoid: Four out of every five kids in this community, 80 percent, live in poverty.
Now it’s 2019. And from a conference room at S.T.A.N.D.’s offices in Oneida, her eyes flash fire as she points at a large worksheet that hangs from the wall, full of scribbling from a recent brain-storming session. At the top, written in Sharpie, is a glaring statistic: 80 percent of Scott County’s youth live below the poverty line.
In two decades, the needle hasn’t moved. Jones doesn’t mask her anger.
“Twenty years later, those numbers haven’t changed even a dribble,” she said. “That makes me mad. These kids deserve better than this. They’re better than that! They need to know that. They need someone to look them in the eye and say, ‘You can do better.'”
Changing a social norm
When S.T.A.N.D. — Schools Together Allowing No Drugs — was formed more than a decade and a half ago, it was primarily a facilitator of drug-testing. The organization provided drug testing services for employers, for schools, and at the behest of parents who suspected their teens might be using illicit drugs.
Drug testing is still a key component of S.T.A.N.D.’s work, along with working with community leaders, law enforcement and others to shape policies for the prevention of drug and alcohol abuse. But drugs are no longer S.T.A.N.D.’s sole focal point. That’s because S.T.A.N.D. has come to see substance abuse as a symptom of this community’s societal woes more than as a cause.
“We’ve been looking at drug use as a symptom for a long time,” says Dale Owens, S.T.A.N.D.’s grants manager. “We’ve kinda come to view drug use as an underlying symptom of poverty.”
In 1999, about the time Jones was putting that statistic about 80 percent of Scott County’s children living in poverty into her grant application, there were papers being written that examined the supposition that drug use causes poverty.
In the 20 years since then, as the prescription drug epidemic has savaged rural communities and the meth crisis has dramatically deepened, study after study has shown that the poverty-substance abuse connection is just the opposite: people who live in poverty-stricken communities are at a higher risk of falling victim to addiction.
If poverty is a driving factor in Scott County’s drug problem, there’s another truth that rears its ugly head: poverty breeds poverty. Or, as Jones puts it, “We become who we’re taught to be.”
So it becomes a generational issue. “We’re trying to change an entire generation,” Owens says. A generation of young parents who’ve known nothing but poverty in their lives are raising the next generation of kids — who are also in danger of reaching adulthood having known nothing but poverty.
Poverty, says S.T.A.N.D. executive director Trent Coffey, has become a social norm.
“What is will always be and you can’t strive for anything better,” he says.
So if all those things are true, what better place to start than with the youth?
‘You can do better’
This is where S.T.A.N.D.’s youth coalition comes into play. It has a formal name: the Youth Service Learning Initiative (YSLI). It is a movement that is governed by a teen board that meets monthly to kick around ideas and discuss things amongst themselves. Then, a town hall type of forum is held three days later at Scott County’s Boys & Girls Club. It’s led by the youth, who break into committees to brainstorm new ideas for improving the community. On the YSLI board are both affluent kids who are in the minority in Scott County, and kids who deal with poverty on a daily basis. When the youth coalition meetings began five years ago, Jones couldn’t convince five kids to show up. At the most recent meeting, last week, more than 60 showed up.
“When you come to the coalition meetings, your voice matters,” Jones says. “It doesn’t matter what your last name is, what your economic background is, what kind of student you are in school. None of that matters in those meetings. What matters is your voice.”
Coffey said the goal is to both make kids proactive in changing the community, and to show the youth who know poverty first-hand that it’s okay to aspire for better.
“Some people don’t hope and dream because they don’t know they can,” he said. “They’ve never gotten outside the box of this community to know that.”
Obviously a key part of S.T.A.N.D.’s work through the youth coalition is to prevent the community’s students from falling into the web of addiction. “But you can’t just say I’m going to keep them from doing drugs,” Coffey said. “You have to change the whole mindset, especially the poverty mindset.”
‘You should have new things, too’
As part of S.T.A.N.D.’s work, the organization once accepted donations of clothing, which was redistributed to community members in need. Jones herself was the founder of Michael’s Mission — established in honor of her son, Michael Jones, who was killed in a car accident — which accepted donations and sold them on the cheap.
Those days, Coffey said, are over. No longer does S.T.A.N.D. accept donations. That might seem harsh, but he said it contributes to the poverty mindset.
“I’m not getting them into the mindset that they should have someone else’s hand-me-downs,” he said. “They should have new things, too.”
Jones echoes that sentiment.
“I don’t want people that I serve to feel like all they’re good enough for is someone else’s castoffs,” she said. “I keep telling these students, that’s now how you want to live. Do you want to live the rest of your life standing in a line waiting for someone else to give you what they think you deserve?”
Sometimes, the key to avoiding poverty is surprisingly simple. Owens points out the statistics that show that poverty is avoidable in four out of five cases by doing three things: Stay in school, graduate, obtain an education; don’t have a child out of wedlock; and don’t get married before the age of 21.
“If you can do those three things, 80 percent of the time you can avoid living in poverty,” Owens said. “So the questions then are why are our students dropping out of school? Why are they having kids out of wedlock?”
As always, the signs point back to the societal norms that have been established.
Then there are other questions. Even though unemployment in Scott County is hovering around four percent, near an all-time low, there are 2,000 fewer people in the workforce now than there once was. “We’re trying to understand why people have given up,” Owens said. “We think that could be why drug use is so high.”
It’s a vicious cycle. Once you’re hooked on drugs, your chances of holding down a job become next to impossible. And joblessness is an obvious driver of substance abuse.
Now it’s Coffey’s time to get passionate. Part of the problem, he preaches, is the way the community has stigmatized drug abuse, which makes it harder for addicts to seek help.
“We’ve got to treat it as a true health issue and not as a moral judgment,” Coffey said. “When did we become such hierarchists in this community that we’re better than anybody else? We can’t just pull them out of addiction. We’ve got to go in and carry them out. It’s cliche, but we have to love one another. God didn’t send for the people in the leper community. He went into the leper community and brought them out.”
Slow and steady wins the race
“I wish we had fairy dust that we could throw onto our kids and they could just walk out and live the life they were meant to live. But all we can do is keep trying.”
That’s Vickie Jones’ mindset, as S.T.A.N.D. settles in for the long haul. The fix won’t be a quick one, Coffey warns. It took years for these societal mindsets to develop, and it will take years to change them.
“We need single-digit, incremental changes,” he said. “And then, in four years, if we’ve changed eight percent, we’ve reached a goal. And we can build on it from there.”
One thing Coffey is sure of, though: Feeling satisfied is a mindset that has to be guarded against.
“We don’t want to be a feel-good organization,” he said. “People say if we help just one, we’ve done our job. That is an abhorrent statement. Because if we let just one fall by the wayside, we have failed at our job.”