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Reality Party Educates Adults About Underage Drinking in Kamiah, Idaho

Most parents would be troubled to discover empty beer cans littering their front yard and to find unconscious teens sprawled on their living room floor. Even those who still buy into the dangerous myth that underage drinking is a harmless rite of passage would be shocked to have a stranger appear from behind a closed door and announce, “Hey, your daughter thinks I’m 17, but I’m really 35. We met on the Internet. But don’t worry—I’m a lover, not a fighter,” and then return to a dark bedroom. Even when this situation was not in their own home and the girl in question wasn’t their own daughter, encounters like this in Kamiah, Idaho, prompted many parents to seriously consider underage drinking prevention measures proposed by the Kamiah Community Partners Coalition after they visited the group’s 2012 Reality Party house.

The Reality Party is one of the coalition’s quarterly Town Hall Meetings held each year and the one that creates a lot of interest and excitement in a spread-out rural community of about 4,400. At the same time, the Reality Party has helped build recognition for the coalition as an important community resource and correct local misperceptions about policies designed to prevent underage drinking. Recent declines in local measures of underage drinking point to the effectiveness of the coalition’s comprehensive approach to creating a safer and healthier environment for youth, with the Reality Party as one important element.

Two dozen teen residents, recruited by the Coalition’s Youth Engaged in Service program, plan and create the annual Reality Party. After thorough rehearsal, the teens also act in the dramatic tableau that visitors encounter as they are guided through the 30-minute house tour. The young performers not only dramatically illustrate some of the worst possible outcomes of teenage alcohol use but they also deliver fact-based messages about the prevalence and consequences of such behavior. In addition, they appeal to the adult audience to recognize the pressures they are under to begin drinking early and for help in resisting such pressure. A narrator/host guides groups of 10 preregistered participants through the tour. At the end, the group is addressed by two panels. First, a panel made up of youth talks about the influence of negative peer pressure and appeals to the adults to help make drinking look less “cool.” Second, an expert panel of coalition members comprising emergency service personnel, law enforcement, and prevention specialists reviews facts about the “reality” of underage drinking. The Reality Party house remains open for about 5 hours, allowing several groups to complete the tour. In 2012, 75 registered visitors toured the house.

Kamiah is a place where people know one another. A benefit of its modest size is that the coalition’s Executive Director Sharlene Johnson had only to pick up the phone to get the school district to include Reality Party invitations with the student report cards mailed to parents. Coalition youth used social media to boost interest and attendance, and Johnson credits local radio for helping to create an air of excitement and anticipation for the activity. The blend of these elements—an activity that is fun and challenging for the kids, entertainment for both them and their adult audience members, and a vehicle promoting public education and a change in attitude about underage drinking—have created a successful endeavor for the coalition: The 2012 event is the third annual Reality Party staged in Kamiah.

As the area’s Drug-Free Communities grantee, Kamiah Community Partners Coalition set out to shift a traditional local “work hard, play hard” attitude that has accepted adult heavy drinking and underage alcohol consumption to a public health–based recognition of the actual health, safety, legal, economic, and social consequences of these behaviors. Resistance to policies aimed at stopping underage drinking has required careful education, sometimes on a one-on-one basis. For example, Johnson learned that word had spread that the proposed social host ordinance would allow confiscation of property from owners of land on which youth were caught with alcohol, even if the owner had no knowledge of the matter. Countering such misinformation and building support for evidence-based prevention have been slow, difficult work, and the Reality Party Town Hall Meeting has helped win over indifferent or even hostile community members.

Each Reality Party guest is added to the coalition’s e-mail list and receives a thank-you for participating, a followup survey, and announcements of future events; these communications help connect guests to the coalition’s efforts. Despite a few critics who have charged that the Reality Party models the worst kind of behavior, particularly for the youth who stage it, the coalition is proud of the progress it has made. Between 2006 and 2012, for example, Kamiah youth reported a 17 percent reduction in past 30-day alcohol use. During the same period, the percentage of Kamiah teens who said that alcohol was very easy/easy to obtain fell by 23 percent.

Johnson sees preventing underage drinking and its consequences as a priority for Kamiah, and she finds SAMHSA’s Town Hall Meetings an ideal mechanism for changing adult attitudes and improving the community environment. She says the keys to planning a successful Town Hall Meeting are “be organized; get help; make it exciting and keep it real.”

On August 23, 2013, the Kamiah Community Partners Coalition was recognized with a National Exemplary Awards for Innovative Substance Abuse Prevention Programs, Practices, and Policies Honorable Mention at an event hosted by the National Prevention Network, in Oklahoma City. The awards program is sponsored by SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse Prevention and administered by the National Association of State Alcohol/Drug Abuse Directors.


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