Tri-City Ledger -

By Gretchen McPherson
Ledger Staff 

Children's Policy Council updates youth programs


November 14, 2019

The Escambia County (Ala.) Children's Policy Council met last Thursday to hear updates from member organizations and heard guest speaker Deon Gaston speak about the success of the Compass II Life Program this year.

The council has a total operating budget of $219,000, according to Children’s Policy Council Director Kaurean Reynolds. Funding is provided through grants, such as a federal grant of $125,000 from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), a grant of $100,000 for Project Turn Around, a $13,000 grant for Sexual Prevention and a $5,000 mentoring grant from New Horizons. Reynolds said the grants are awarded at different times during the fiscal year.

Sexual Abuse Prevention Grant (Erin's Law)

The Sexual Abuse Prevention Grant, through Alabama Department of Children's Trust, allows teacher Felicia Bishop to teach students at a young age about sexual abuse prevention through age-appropriate curriculum.

Brewton City School Superintendent Tim Varner said he is very pleased with the sexual prevention grant and with the work that Bishop does in the Brewton city schools.

“Honestly, I was terrified when Erin's Law came out, because how does one talk to elementary kids about sexual abuse prevention?,” said Varner. “We know there's a need, but we were scared of maybe exposing somebody. She does a great job and the curriculum is very much age-appropriate. That has been a wonderful program the last couple of years, I think it's much-needed and beneficial. That's a great way to address Erin's Law in the community.”

Needs Assessment

Reynolds said the Needs Assessment was completed in July 27 and the top three needs in the community emerged: enhanced school success, juvenile crime and safety and substance abuse prevention.

“With the Peer Helper addition, the goal is to put a peer helper program in all schools, but we've learned it's more efficient at ages 12 and up, so we decided not to start with FES.

Compass II Life Program

Guest speaker Deon Gaston with Compass II Life Behavior and Leadership Program said the program is going on four years serving Baldwin and Mobile county juvenile courts. It's a community-based program focusing on targeting at-risk kids, peer leadership, improved choices, values, anger aggression and how to live with integrity. He said they are preparing to provide services to Escambia County, especially the Atmore area, where one Saturday a month they meet with the kids to provide counseling, mentorship, and featuring guest speakers from local businesses each meeting to talk about different trades and why it is important to be an asset to their community and how they can be a leader in the future. A new program starts every 10 weeks, he said.

Gaston said the program will kick off next month with council's approval.

He said the goals for the proposed model for 2019 through 2020 are: in December to talk about Compass II Life and what it's function is; in January to talk about choices versus consequences and STR (Stop, Think, Respond) before every decision; in February to focus on anger and aggression, how to respond in a conflict situation and knowing triggers and limits; in March to learn about respect for adults, in authority with a local police officer to be guest speaker to talk about how to respond in situations; in April how to identify values and character building, who you you when no one is looking and integrity; in May, females and males with like mentors will discuss healthy dating, when to have children, respecting yourself and a community service outing (planned prior); in June, youth will create a vision board with action planning and a five-year plan, followed by reviews, and to teach boys how to tie a tie; then in July, will be the final review,rehearsal and graduation with the public and family invited. Each participant will present their 5-year plan and receive a certificate of completion, T-shirt and awards.

“It's a privilege to serve Escambia County,” said Gaston. “We had a great year last year. Seeing the kids from start to finish was amazing, being able to present their five-year plan and that growth was just amazing. We've been doing this four years now and look forward to serving Escambia County, we want to do our best to keep the kids put of trouble and on the right road.”

Gaston said they usually get about 25 youth who apply, but they actually take anywhere from 20 to 25, but that only about 15 will actually graduate, as a few drop out along the way.

“We start with a certain number, but lose 2 or 3. It's co-ed, with at least two staff members, male and female, at all times.”

Reynolds said Gaston's organization was brought in because it took a lot of work to investigate mentors who are worthy to work with area youth, so it was easier for them to contract out to an organization that already had done the footwork.

“The New Horizons Program and Compass II Life Program is one in the same, it's a mentoring program,” said Reynolds. “Mr. Gaston also provided services on our Project Turn Around Program, as we are required to have different services, as part of the grant. He has been an excellent asset to the community, people look up to him, they know how to talk to him, he can address the issues that are going on. We will probably continue to work with him in the future.”

“I had an opportunity to go down this year and speak at their graduation, and I can tell the kids really love Mr. Gaston,” said council President Eric Coale. “He does a good job with them. Some were really shy, and his encouragement got them to open a lot more. I appreciate what he is doing with those kids on that end.”

Brent Crosby from Laurel Oaks Behavioral Health Center in Dothan, Ala. Said they offer in-patient care with child adolescents who are in crisis, also long-term residential program

Offer a lot of community education for school systems at no charge, such as substance abuse, teen problems, suicide prevention, bullying, also staff development and professional staff development for educators, social workers, etc. Co-own with his wife private counseling service in Flomaton downtown for adults, children, couples, substance abuse, etc.

DFC Grant

The Drug Free Communities (DFC) grant upcoming is a grant awarded over 5 to 10 years, providing peer helper programs and all drug prevention services, such as Drugs Erase Dreams initiatives, drug court initiatives and Project CLOUD, to name a few. Reynolds said he will be working on the grant over the next six weeks.

6th Annual Leadership Symposium

Began as a religious leader symposium with all the resources available to the community through churches and religious leaders and organizations around 2012, but the participation went down about two years ago, about the same time we created Peer Helper Program in all the schools. Took opportunity to change from religious leader symposium to a Leadership symposium.

Bring all the students together at one central location and provide training and activities, allow each school to get up in front of all their peers to have a good time and show a snapshot of what they have done all year. Will be in March or April, to be announced.


Truancy is becoming a real problem in the public school system. Reynolds said there are many reasons students miss school and that a complaint made this year may not be address until next year, and the student could have dropped out by then or graduated, going through the court system.

“Sometime it's as simple as a kid not having uniforms washed so they can go to school,” said Reynolds. “Sometimes it's more issues. Maybe it's drug use in the family, there are all kinds of different issues going on.”

Reynolds said the city school system reached out to the council about the problem of truancy and they are probably going to work with the county to establish a 'uniform policy for truancy diversion.' Programs in the past included the Early Warning Program, which addresses a student's absence from school after 3 to 5 days. The student is required to come to a central location and given a warning by a district attorney or law enforcement officer. If there is still a problem, the students has to complete the truancy diversion course, where they can be forgiven for absences once the program is completed, although it is controversial. He said the two will meet next month to discuss a plan of action.

Several council members discussed the complexities of why students may try to avoid going to school, including sexual abuse, physical abuse, severe neglect, children who witness domestic abuse, claims of attempts at home-schooling and dynamics of issues in the home and the lack of support.

“Sometimes truancy is the problem, but a lot of times, truancy is just a symptom of another problem,” said Varner.

Family Drug Court

Reynolds said that Director Jennifer Blunt is working with the Escambia County Department of Human Resources trying to get more participation in the program and receive more funding.

Drugs Erase Dreams

Program instructor and former intravenous opioid addict Molly Pizzati, who is currently working at T.R. Miller High School, said the Drugs Erase Dreams Program has updated it's curriculum and statistics, adding juuling due to the increased risk and increased use among teens. She said there are now study guides to go along with the curriculum taught, and at the end of the course, the students are graded on what they've learned. Pizzati said she will be at W.S. Neal High School, Escambia County High School then Flomaton High School.

Reynolds said the traditional Drugs Erase Dreams was part of Red Ribbon Week in several county schools recently, with the Sheriff's department and various speakers in the schools. The sheriff's department and the CPC shared funding to provide a BMX Bike Show to do tricks and give the message to stay away from drugs.

Project Turn Around

The Project Turn Around Program now has 22 participants, up from as few as seven before. Reynolds said the state began sending warning letters to increase participation or have the program's funding cut. Reynolds said the 22 participants puts the council in compliance now.

Family Hope Place

Family Hope Place Director Vicki Fussell talked about the Workforce Development Project, with a goal of serving 40 participants a year, with intensive case management, getting their GED, getting a job, etc.

“The project starts every July 1, and we've already enrolled 17 students,” said Fussell. “Which mean that of those 17 students, all of the dropped out of school at some point. So truancy was an issue. We're making great progress right now just with the class at Hope Place. I think we have three students who lack just one more part of their GED to get it.”

Fussell talked about workplace learning being offered to assist participants in getting a job. She said there are three to four parenting classes offered also with as many as seven to 20 people in the classes.


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