Retired Lyme-Old Lyme prevention coordinator honored with lifetime achievement award

Retired Lyme-Old Lyme prevention coordinator Karen Fischer. (Photo courtesy of The Connecticut Association of Prevention Professionals)
Retired Lyme-Old Lyme prevention coordinator Karen Fischer. (Photo courtesy of The Connecticut Association of Prevention Professionals)

Old Lyme — In her work preventing youth substance use, Karen Fischer said she favors the approach of changing typically accepted behavior to create a healthier community with healthier youth.

"The key with prevention is getting all sectors of the community involved, because if everybody is on the same page you’re more likely to have an impact," Fischer said.

That work in Lyme-Old Lyme includes the police, schools, and parents, along with town government.

Fischer, 71, retired this summer after serving seven years as a prevention coordinator at Community Action for Substance Free Youth (CASFY) at the Lymes' Youth Service Bureau and recently received a lifetime achievement award from The Connecticut Association of Prevention Professionals. Christine Poscich is the new prevention coordinator at CASFY.

Fischer, a Minnesota native married to former New London Schools Superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer, began her career as a high-school English teacher before becoming an elementary school counselor. She then went into private practice as a mental health counselor working with children and families.

When she and her husband moved to Fall River, Mass., for his superintendent post, she was hired by a community coalition to prevent youth substance use.

The Fischers then relocated to southeastern Connecticut when Nicholas Fischer became superintendent in New London. Mary Seidner, the director of the Lymes' Youth Service Bureau, said the Fischers' move came at just the right time.

A prevention coalition at the Lymes' Youth Service Bureau was in its early stages, and the Child and Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut had received a federal grant through the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and formed a partnership with CASFY at the Lymes' Youth Service Bureau. Fischer was hired as the new prevention coordinator.

"Karen brought a wealth of information and prevention expertise which was exactly what we needed," Seidner said by email. "Under Karen’s leadership our coalition launched several social marketing campaigns aimed at reducing youth substance use through a variety of creative and innovative strategies. Karen collaborated with the community including the schools, police, and local businesses and organizations."

"Most importantly she involved youth, empowering them to lead efforts in advocating against legalization of marijuana," she added. "After seven years, Karen retired leaving Lyme and Old Lyme with a significant reduction in youth alcohol use and a community better prepared and trained to handle future challenges."

The coalition began with an informational program about substance abuse during freshmen students' first semester "High School 101," a course in which students learn about stress and mental health and start researching colleges or programs they are interested in pursuing after graduation, she said. 

Coalition members and school nurses spoke to students about the consequences of early substance abuse and what is addiction, and also taught them coping skills, she said. They then added a component in which they spoke to students about personal experiences in their lives and their families' lives.

During a freshman forum in the spring, the coalition began bringing in young people who were fairly new in their recovery to speak to students about their stories and about coping skills, she said.

In 2011, the coalition began a media campaign, aimed at parents, by posting signs on garbage trucks that said: "The easiest place for kids to get beer is right next to the milk. Keep alcohol out of the hands of kids."

Parents told her the campaign had an impact.

"They hadn’t really thought about how easy it was for kids to get alcohol," Fischer said. "We know from our youth surveys that younger kids mostly get alcohol from their own homes .... and most people, we know from our surveys, don’t secure their alcohol or monitor it."

In addition to rolling out different versions of the media campaign, the coalition and the youth service bureau also hold twice-yearly drug take-back days, provide training for teachers and coaches on how to spot if a youth may be in trouble, and introduced a youth-police program to the community.

A prevention youth group also started up, with Missy Garvin serving as youth programs coordinator, and the support of the high school. The group launched a social media campaign, #ProAtBeingMe, around a visit of former NBA basketball player and former addict Chris Herren, to encourage confidence and prevent substance abuse.

Fischer said the number one drug used by Lyme-Old Lyme youth has always been alcohol, but the last youth survey in 2015 found that recent use of marijuana was about the same as recent use of alcohol. Prescription drugs were far behind and mostly confined to seniors, but she said in some communities in the region misuse of prescription drugs has leaped to number one, which is a huge concern.

Her key message for parents is that if a child uses no drugs, including cigarettes or vaping, by the age of 18, there's nearly a 90 percent chance they won't have trouble with substances or become addicted in their lifetime, she said.

Old ideas, such as that drinking is a rite of passage and everyone does it, are antiquated in terms of what is happening now, she emphasized. 

"It's so much more dangerous than ever before because of the opioids," she said.

She further said it's important to quickly pass new ordinances and laws to shut down new drugs that come on to the market.

With the prevention of youth marijuana use a top concern, CASFY and about 20 youths from the youth group traveled to Hartford in February of 2016 to meet with state Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, and State Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme, in opposition to a proposed bill to legalize recreational marijuana.

Fischer said the students got to learn how important it is to advocate.

"We developed leaders over the years who stick with it into and through their senior year and having those youth voices are so important," she said.

Fischer is spending her retirement living in New London, visiting their two daughters and two grandchildren, volunteering at an after-school program in New London, enjoying activities, and planning to visit Italy for her and her husband's 50th wedding anniversary. She is a member of New London's prevention coalition and a board member of the Connecticut Association of Prevention Professionals.

John Daviau, the executive director of CAPP, which gave Fischer the lifetime achievement award, noted her "long history of leading prevention efforts in communities she has worked."

"Karen's impact in the Lyme/Old Lyme community was significant, leading the coalition's efforts that resulted to reductions in youth alcohol use, increasing healthy community norms about drug use, and increasing the community's active engagement in their efforts," he said by email.

Fischer said it has been rewarding to work with the coalition and youth and encourage people to take the next step. She pointed to small steps that make a difference, such as a parent calling the home of where a child wants to go to a party, or going for a walk or run rather than having a glass of wine every night. 

"With prevention, you don't know whose lives you're saving and I'm OK with that, but it's very rewarding work if you're willing to see the little stuff changing, if you're able to notice that — and it's so critical now, more than ever," she said.

k.drelich@theday.com

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