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McDowell Drug Task Force celebrates 25 years

Alcohol abuse and illegal drug use can sneak up quietly in a community, slowly infecting the population with the poison of addiction, until it becomes a full-blown epidemic.

Drugs and alcohol have become a serious problem in Sonoma County ? sometimes with tragic results, such as the fatal stabbing of a Petaluma man last December, allegedly over the demand for alcohol by a 16-year-old boy.

But one Petaluma group has been fighting back against illegal substance use. The McDowell Drug Task Force, now celebrating its 25th year, has been actively engaged in preventing and reducing illegal drug and alcohol use in youth.

The task force grew out of a group of concerned citizens who all had children affected by drug or alcohol use, and met for the first time to discuss anti-drug strategies at McDowell Elementary School, spurring the creation of the organization?s name. Dick Sharke, the program?s founder and executive director, saw the need for collaboration between neighborhoods to discuss what was working and what wasn?t.

?We needed to educate the community to the hazards of the use of illegal drugs and alcohol, and the illegal use of legal drugs,? Sharke said. ?We started in the schools because adults are hard to get through to.? Since those first monthly meetings, the task force has switched its strategy from generating a dialog about substance abuse to bringing drug and alcohol prevention and education programs directly to youth in the community.

Now retired, Sharke spoke of how important it is to mobilize against drug and alcohol abuse and the violence that comes with it. ?Tens of thousands of people die every year from alcohol and drug use, and there are no protests,? he said. ?We?ll never get the chance to see what these kids might have been.?

The task force hopes to break the cycle of drug use by teaching youth through drug prevention programs such as Every 15 Minutes, D.A.R.E., Project Graduation and Red Ribbon week. Through local fund-raising efforts, the Task Force has put $50,000 right back into the community to fund these anti-drug programs, and acts as a catalyst to help programs grow. One such program, Project Graduation, started on the East Coast as an effort to prevent graduating seniors from dying from alcohol-related accidents on graduation night, but was ushered into Sonoma County only after the task force brough it to the community.

The task force has also embraced the idea of involving the youth themselves in the prevention of drug youth among their peers. ?We were the first group in America to have teenagers on our board of directors,? Sharke said. ?I was getting tired of all the adults saying what it was that youth needed, and I thought, ?Why not ask them?? He emphasized that many people eclipse how hard it is for youth to cope with the pressures of growing up, and has noticed that many young people walk around without any inner pride. Sharke tells youth who are struggling with drug and alcohol addiction to look inward to find the strength to fight back. ?I tell them, ?Look in the mirror. If you don?t like what you see, make a change,? he said.

But the most difficult challenges the task force comes up against are not drug dealers or the increasing accessibility of narcotics and alcohol to youth, it?s apathy. ?I see teenagers out on the streets at two or three in the morning, and I ask, where are their parents?? Sharke said. ?People don?t educate themselves until it?s too late. It takes total involvement.?

Though the task force is celebrating a major milestone this week, Sharke notes that the organization has no plans on stopping. ?I?ll do whatever it takes to save a life. Young people are just too valuable.?

(Contact Heather Sevrens at argus@arguscourier.com)

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