Friday, February 12, 2021

Be The Influence Coalition promotes coping skills, positive choices with virtual programming

By Elizabeth Richards

Unable to conduct in-person prevention programs because of COVID-19, the Be The Influence Coalition (BTI) continues working toward its mission of “promoting community collaboration and positive choices in reducing youth substance use” through virtual programming.

COVID-19 has caused problems for kids in terms of engagement and isolation, said BTI Director Laura Morris.  Substance use, anxiety, depression and suicide are on the rise, so the coalition is trying to find youth engagement activities that, although virtual, offer youth ways to express themselves, building skills to counteract the adversity they face, she said.

Be The Influence Coalition is hosting a series of webinars 
for students called Empower ME through September.
A new collaborative dance program with Windham
Parks and Recreation is also launching in February.

"The arts have always been proven to help kids’ self-esteem, emoting, exploration,” Morris said, so they created their Arts in Prevention series. In the fall, BTI worked with students in the Katahdin program at Windham High School, teaching them about Van Gogh and the ways he used color, forms and style to express his feelings, Morris said.  Students created their own art pieces while listening to “Starry, Starry Night” and these pieces were transferred into chalk art outdoors.

In February, the series continues with a dance program facilitated by Karen Montanaro. The program is part of DEA 360 Strategy, which “kicked off in Maine in December 2020 to provide lasting impact in communities by partnering with local government agencies, community organizations, schools, Drug Free Coalitions and law enforcement,” according to a fact sheet from the organization.  The dance program is funded by the DEA Education Foundation.  The dance program curriculum uses the Hip Hop dance style and incorporates messages about positive alternatives to drugs and gang violence, building self-esteem, teamwork and resilience. Eriko Farnsworth, Community Outreach Specialist for DEA 360 said, “We’re really excited to be part of Windham’s Arts in Prevention. It’s such a great concept.”

The Windham Parks & Recreation Department will manage the program.

Windham Parks and Recreation is very committed to being an active member of the BTI coalition, with direct involvement geared toward youth engagement,” said Windham Parks & Recreation Director Linda Brooks.  “We are always open to any collaborative effort presented by the coalition that enhances the lives of our young people and provides them with healthy choices during their time away from school.”

The expansion is welcome.

“The youth dance program is a new type of activity for us to offer, but we are pleased to expand the breadth of our programming with the hope that we can reach more kids. Due to the DEA EF’s grant funding, the program is completely free to participants,” said Sarah Davenport, Youth and Family Coordinator for Windham Parks & Recreation. “The primary goal of the program is to provide youth with opportunities to connect with others, be physically active, and learn new skills while having fun during the after school hours. This is especially important during the pandemic when so many young people are struggling with feeling isolated.”

The dance program will run for 20 sessions, from 3 to 4 p.m. on Mondays & Wednesdays beginning Feb. 22.  Registration is through Windham Parks & Recreation at or by calling 892-1905.

“We are pleased to have been able to put all of the pieces in place in order to provide this unique program to our middle school population,” Brooks said.  She added the department has successfully partnered with Morris and BTI in the past to bring a summer theater program to area youth and are looking forward to offering a similar program this spring. 

In late Spring, BTI will partner with Acorn Productions to co-facilitate a middle school theater seminar series. In the five-week program students will create a monologue and learn improvisational acting skills and techniques for presenting the monologue, Morris said.  The theme will revolve around what students do to cope and what makes them happy, so that the monologues will reflect hope, Morris said.

BTI is also presenting a webinar series for anyone in the community titled EmpowerME. Since the coalition can’t do a lot of the things they’re used to doing, she said, focus group participants were asked what their needs were, Morris said.

“Everybody came back saying we need help just understanding isolation, understanding coping skills, how do we reduce stress, how do we engage,” she said. “We identified the things that people really wanted help with.”

They then partnered with the City of Portland Public Health Department and the Maine Youth Action Network, which is part of the Opportunity Alliance, to develop the series of educational webinars. These webinars are free, presented via Zoom or Google Meets.

Most webinars are from 2 to 3 p.m. on the third Wednesday of the month. The February presentation will be on Feb. 24 because of school vacation week.  The series runs through September. Topics include vaping, trauma, art programs, grandparents as caregivers, restorative practices, conversation skills around sensitive topics, and the impact of social media.  

“The hardest part is that we offer them because people need them, but we don’t get huge attendance because people don’t want to be on another screen,” Morris said. She said that they try to keep webinars under an hour, make them interactive and easy to understand, and allow people to walk away with real tools to implement.”

The Feb. 24 webinar, “Not Just Blowing Smoke” will discuss vaping and youth use, vaping products and the chemical components, the adolescent brain and decision making, addiction, marketing tactics the vaping industry uses, and more.  Tips and resources for quitting, making healthy decisions and alternative coping mechanisms will also be offered.

Information on future webinars can be found on the BTI website ( or Facebook page.  Participants can register by emailing Morris at <

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