Partners Work Together to Solve a Communitywide Alcohol Problem

Free To Grow in Wausau, Wis.

Field of Work: Strengthening families and neighborhood environments in high-risk, low-income communities.

Problem Synopsis: In the early 1990s, there was a growing consensus among researchers that substance abuse can have roots in early childhood. Yet studies pointed to certain factors that can moderate these risks, even for children growing up in adverse conditions: improved family functioning; a positive relationship with a caring adult outside the family; clear standards against substance abuse in the family; and willingness to seek treatment for family members who are abusing drugs.

Taverns are a common site in Wausau, Wis.; it has 84 and a population of about 40,000. Before Free To Grow, the local Head Start agency and other Wausau organizations, including the police, schools and a local substance abuse treatment provider dealt with alcohol abuse one person at a time.

Synopsis of the Work: Free To Grow—a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) from 1992 to 2005—supported efforts by Head Start agencies and their community partners to strengthen the families and neighborhood environments of high-risk preschool children living in low-income communities. The goal was to reduce the children's vulnerability to substance abuse and related problems in later life.

Through the partnerships established by Free To Grow, the partner organizations began to view tolerance for alcohol abuse as a communitywide problem that could be solved through collaborative action. The neighborhoods surrounding Wausau's center city—a high-crime area that was home to a majority of the city's Head Start families—was the target area of the project. But some of the strategies encompassed the entire city, not just that one section.

Key Results: The Free To Grow partners established a workgroup to focus on alcohol-related policy. The group served as the agent for public awareness campaigns aimed at changing social norms on alcohol use. A campaign based on a survey conducted as part of Free To Grow focused on three messages:

  • "More than half of Wausau area teens have never tried alcohol."
  • "96 percent of Wausau area teens don't drink alcohol when they hang out with their friends."
  • "Wausau area teens think that most teens drink alcohol, the truth is 75 percent don't drink."

Most Requested