Penquis substance use program wants to expand to more schools

A new Penquis program that supports youth affected by substance use wants to expand its efforts in and around Piscataquis County.

The SAY program — which stands for substance-affected youth — works to support and build the resilience of middle- and high-school students in Piscataquis and Penobscot counties, some of whom have endured trauma tied to substance use.

A Penquis team uses trauma-informed practices while meeting with students individually and in group settings at school, sometimes involving family members. They offer substance use awareness training and talk about the dangers of fentanyl and truth about cannabis, among other things, said Clifford “Mike” Gray, program manager.

In Piscataquis — one of the poorest and most rural counties in Maine — the need for more resources is especially prominent, and children affected by someone else’s substance use are often overlooked, Gray said. Some students are struggling with substance use themselves and program staff guide them toward recovery and resources, depending on their needs, he said.

“Piscataquis has some very unique challenges because of its rural nature,” he said.

In 2021, one in 15 babies born in Maine, or 6.7 percent, were drug-affected, Gray told Piscataquis County Commissioners during a meeting Tuesday, referring to data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center. Of live births in Piscataquis and Penobscot, 12.1 percent and 5.7 percent were substance-exposed, respectively, according to the foundation.

In Piscataquis, Gray’s team is working with students and families in Milo and Dexter as well as SeDoMoCha in Dover-Foxcroft. Penquis hopes to see the program expand to Foxcroft Academy and schools in Guilford and Greenville, he said.

“Our goal is to leverage our experience and our manpower to help find a solution, get it up and running and then turn it back over to the community to keep it running,” Gray said.

The SAY program serves as a catalyst, he said, and how a community takes over depends on available funding, the departments involved — such as police or recreation — and the needs of youth in the area.

Gray’s team is working with community partners to brainstorm ways to better support youth, such as after-school programs and recreational activities. An approach could be as simple as providing a space for children to gather for breakfast before school while a movie plays in the background, Gray said. It’s about creating a safe space for them and somewhere they can go to interact with trusted adults.

Sometimes children in rural areas feel like they have nowhere to hang out and nothing to do, so they turn to experimenting with substances, Gray said. That’s why preventative work is so crucial, he said.

“We live in a world where we have youth in middle school who are actively using substances and need a recovery coach,” Kara Hay, Penquis CEO and president, told commissioners. “We have to work with them to get them off that path.”

The SAY program operates under a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which expires in 2024. It has three full-time employees and an intern.

The program has some similarities to the OVC program — or the federal justice department’s Office for Victims of Crime — which ended in late September and was stymied because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gray said. But SAY is designed to be inclusive and focus more broadly on substance use, rather than just opioids.

Get the Rest of the Story

Thank you for reading your 4 free articles this month. To continue reading, and support local, rural journalism, please subscribe.