BEST scores $1.5M grant; longtime director retires

Part of a new grant Tahlequah BEST Community Coalition was recently awarded will go towards supporting Student Wellness Action Teams, which participate in events like Kick Butts Day. Trenton Hess, back, and Hank Johnson walk along the creek at Sequoyah City Park in Tahlequah, picking up cigarette butts.

The executive director of a local coalition dedicated to keeping the Tahlequah community healthy and drug-free is retiring at the end of the month, but not without helping the group bring in $1.5 million in grant funding before she leaves.

The Tahlequah Bringing Everyone's Strengths Together Community Coalition, an organization that aims to reduce substance abuse among youths, received the grant through the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Val Dobbins, BEST executive director, has been with the coalition for 16 years and is leaving on a high note, as the group will receive $300,000 annually for the next five years to keep its mission going.

"It's exciting and such a blessing to receive this funding to sustain the coalition the community has worked so hard to create the past 16 years," Dobbins said.

The Partnership for Success Grant will go toward several things, with a focus on underage drinking and tobacco prevention month - including hiring two community preventionists and a full-time epidemiologist. An epidemiologist studies patterns and risk factors in specific populations, and Dobbins said the individual will help provide the "why" and "how" of problems related to substance to abuse.

Some of the funding will help support the district attorney's drug task force to provide alcohol compliance checks. And Student Wellness Action Teams at every school in the county will also get extra support. SWAT programs focus on substance abuse prevention, physical activity, and nutrition among school students.

"It's kind of like a little advisory group at each county school that we can access to give information," said Dobbins, referring to school SWAT programs. "They also show up at council meetings when we're trying to propose a local ordnance or policy. It's really good that we have groups of kids to ask them what they think, so that we're not out of touch or just shooting from the hip as adults."

Substance abuse prevention has changed over time, said Dobbins. The groups are not only focused on working with individuals, but implementing policies to change the community's landscape. So while many organizations have been at a standstill due to the COVID-19 pandemic, BEST's work over the years to create initiatives that help prevent underage substance abuse remain in place.

"Our coalition is about the environmental aspect, where you're changing the environment where kids live and people live - passing policies and laws where you can't smoke in public," said Dobbins. "We worked hard to put the pseudoephedrine behind the counter. So these things we did really changes the whole population. You're not just changing that one individual you're talking to. So by putting these laws and policies in place, we don't have to be hooked up talking to somebody face-to-face to make change."

Dobbins credits Tahlequah Public Schools Superintendent Leon Ashlock and Federal Programs Director Tanya Jones for much of the support the coalition receives, calling their roles within BEST "critical."

"Superintendent Ashlock and Federal Programs Director Tanya Jones are community health champions that realize the importance of initiatives that work to improve not just the school environment, but the environment of the community where our youth spend time outside of school," she said.

After 16 years with the coalition, Dobbins, who has served as the executive director of Tahlequah BEST since its inception, will pass the torch to Desirae Bloomer. The new director has 15 years of experience in public health and has worked directly with the coalition for the past five years. Dobbins said BEST is being left in excellent hands.

"I love Tahlequah," said Dobbins. "This is my home and I look forward to continue living here. This is my community, and I'm not going anywhere. I just think it's time for a new energy in the coalition."

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