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OLA Gets Major Grant to Combat Opioid Addiction

Wed, 01/25/2023 - 16:33
Minerva Perez, executive director of OLA of Eastern Long Island, speaking last summer at the Parrish Art Museum, said this week that a grant from Suffolk County will allow the organization's Youth Connect crisis counselors “to get a whole other level of training.”

Organizacion Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island will receive $600,000 from Suffolk County over the next three years for opioid abuse prevention work among young people, the group announced Friday.

The grant money, which will be awarded in $200,000 annual installments, comes from an opioid settlement fund established after the county successfully sued major pharmaceutical companies and retail pharmacies. So far, Suffolk has received $25 million from the settlement; OLA is one of 34 agencies to get money in this first round of grant funding.

It will focus on education and prevention among middle and high school students in the five East End towns through its Youth Connect mental health support program, which will now also include an emphasis on substance use disorders.

“It makes all kinds of sense to fold that work in,” Minerva Perez, OLA’s executive director, said by phone on Monday. “We’re using our direct connection to youth and to families . . . as the vehicle to be able to do this work in a meaningful way.”

“The link between mental and emotional health challenges and substance abuse is undeniable,” Ms. Perez said in an announcement about the grant on Friday. “By providing education about the dangers of opioids and other substances as well as the anonymous, bilingual text and phone helpline that connects any teen in need to one of our Youth Connect crisis counselors, our goal is to prevent future substance abuse.”

Youth Connect was launched in September to give young people access to “immediate support and guidance in Spanish or English through an anonymous, confidential helpline” — 631-810-9010 — accessible via text or voice phone call. The Youth Connect team includes four dedicated crisis counselors, some of whom are bilingual, and two additional people — Ms. Perez and Andres Espinosa, OLA’s operations manager — who get the same training but have other roles with OLA as well. The team also includes a rotating cast of youth team leaders from middle and high schools.

Ms. Perez explained on Monday that the grant money “will allow our team to get a whole other level of training.”

Already, she said, OLA had been working with partners to create some of the only Spanish-language Narcan training on the Island. Narcan, or naloxone, is a prescription nasal spray used to treat opioid overdose symptoms. And OLA had been addressing substance abuse issues with parents and teens in other forums because questions naturally arise. Parents, for example, want to know what signs to look for and where they can go for support if their children need it.

“What’s so different about what we’re doing is that the other prevention initiatives that are out there are not equipped to work with populations in schools that don’t have any English,” she said. “We need to make sure that these kinds of conversations are happening in a native tongue. That said, Youth Connect is a resource for youth and parents no matter their language background.”

Just last week, OLA held a parent conference in Bridgehampton that drew 40 participants, and its Youth Connect counselors are getting in touch with young people and the adults who support them at schools, churches, and English as a new language programs for adults, all part of a commitment to increasing the network of support for young people and helping them to connect “with an adult that they can trust” when they find themselves most in need of help.

“It’s the long game,” Ms. Perez said.

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