School substance abuse program fights for its life

BRANDON — Complete the sentence: Drinking alcohol makes you feel …

Like any attentive student at Burns Middle School, Doretha Edgecomb raised her hand to speak.

"Free," the Hillsborough County School Board chairwoman offered.

She sat in the front row last week in the eighth-grade classroom, one of the few in the county where the Mendez Foundation still teaches substance abuse prevention.

Hobbled by the elimination of federal grant money, the local nonprofit has scaled back its educational programming in Hillsborough County schools and is seeking other funding options — like finding advocates on the School Board to champion its cause.

"Everyone has a stake in what we're teaching," said Charles Mendez III, managing director of the Mendez Foundation.

These are crucial lessons, Mendez said, even though they're outside the core subjects judged by FCAT and grades. And the nonprofit is scrambling to make sure students don't lose out.

The foundation is not alone, local nonprofit leaders said. Even though they say the prognosis for nonprofits reeling from the recession is finally starting to perk up, organizations at the local, state and national level are still hurting — now in particular with federal and state funding decreasing under tighter budgets and heavy debts.

"Things are not what they used to be," said Grace Armstrong, chief executive of Nonprofit Leadership of Tampa Bay. "They never will be again."

The Mendez Foundation received half of its funding from the government, Mendez said. For the first time in 25 years, the organization will need to undertake private fundraising efforts.

Or it could take a page out of its counterparts' books. For Metropolitan Ministries, which hosts a partnership school and provides services for homeless students, a solution was as simple as sandwiches: an internal catering company that puts people to work and feeds proceeds back into the Tampa nonprofit.

Metropolitan Ministries also spreads its financial footing over a broad base. Just 5 percent of its money comes from the government, said Ana Mendez, the nonprofit's director of community relations. The other 95 percent is community-based, with pledges from civic groups, private businesses and individuals.

"That's really been our motto," said Mendez, who is not affiliated with the Mendez Foundation, "to get the community engaged and help their fellow neighbor in need."

More Health, which teaches health and injury prevention to bay area schools, lost a grant this year. The nonprofit dipped into reserves to cover its teen pregnancy prevention classes, executive director Karen Pesce said.

The organization draws strong support from Tampa General Hospital, its main sponsor in Hillsborough County. Still, "we have to be creative," Pesce said.

Other sources of revenue: developing a mini health lesson to sell to a mobile eye exam van and a mini dental kit to sell to dentists' offices and schools.

More Health, which Pesce said recently won four national grants, extends an "open-door policy" to other agencies to partner on stronger grant proposals that use money efficiently.

Collaboration and community grass roots efforts may help cover the Mendez Foundation's gap of "a few hundred thousand dollars," Charles Mendez said.

Until then, he said the foundation bears the burden of the costs to continue its commitment to educate the county's sixth-grade students on drug abuse.

He'd like to be able to put substance education classes back into all the eighth grades. Until this year, the foundation taught at the high school level, too.

"Prevention education is just like any other skill you need to build and reinforce," Mendez said. "It's like strengthening a muscle."

Mendez has a supporter in Edgecomb, the School Board member who marveled alongside the students at advertisements that marketed alcohol brands as sexy and cool.

A drug education coordinator for the county's schools in the 1970s, Edgecomb says students today are "bombarded" with images of alcohol and drugs.

She's going to meet with the superintendent and other School Board members to discuss support for the Mendez Foundation.

"They need to have the opportunity to see this, too," Edgecomb said. "It definitely has a place."

Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

School substance abuse program fights for its life 02/24/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 24, 2011 3:30am]

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