For the past five years, Pleasantville STRONG has shifted the discussion on how the community views the threat of illegal drugs, alcohol abuse and tobacco to youngsters.
But despite widespread support, the organization will be challenged to remain active and become fiscally sustainable.
The coalition was established in 2015 by a group of Pleasantville residents concerned with the rising opioid epidemic and drug use. The year before, Pleasantville resident John Mueller, currently the Yonkers police commissioner, was involved with Pleasantville 2026, a five-year strategic plan that examined health and well-being of Pleasantville School District students. That served as the jumping-off point for Pleasantville STRONG.
Mueller, one of its founding members, worked to combat and reduce under-age drinking, drug use and other detrimental behaviors by youth in the community. It was not only the coalition’s mission, but one being tackled by municipalities and other committed allies such as school districts, youth groups, law enforcement, local governments and houses of worship. Creation of Pleasantville STRONG brought these stakeholders together.
Once organized, the coalition received a Drug-Free Communities (DFC) federal grant of $125,000 a year for five years and has since reapplied for an additional five years of funding. The grant stipulates that community groups work collaboratively to deal with substance abuse.
“It was a wonderful and unique grant,” said Nicole Malgarinos, the outgoing coalition coordinator, Pleasantville resident and parent of a 15-year-old son. “We used the grant to get competent local data about under-age substance use and mental and emotional health. The data is what informs our action plans.”
One part of the action plan was a massive survey taken of Pleasantville youth in grades 7-12, which would be compared to another survey two years later.
“We think about our benchmark data and how that guides us,” Malgarinos explained. “The data has shown us that since 2015 to the present there has been a 30 percent reduction across the board for use in all substances.”
The DFC grant also paid to bring aboard Mary Ann Flatley, a licensed mental health counselor who is the student assistance counselor for the Pleasantville School District. Flatley has engaged with students and parents on a regular basis about addiction to vaping, marijuana and alcohol. Eventually, the school district funded about 80 percent of her salary.
“When Mary Ann is in a classroom talking about a particular topic, the coalition coordinates doing that same talk with parents and community members,” Malgarinos said. “What the students are hearing we are mirroring for the adults. Also, from our parent forums we hear what they are seeing and hearing, we know most kids are not using substances.”
The challenge for Malgarinos was changing the public’s perception of what might be happening in their own community.
“It took a tremendous amount of work and money to do that because it’s not a conversation people want to have,” she said. “But for five years we’ve been having those conversations and making real changes.”
Since its inception, Pleasantville STRONG has created strong partnerships with the Village of Pleasantville, which oversees the funding, the Village Board, the Pleasantville School District and youth officers from the Pleasantville Police Department, among other parties.
“We work with all of these groups on a weekly basis,” said Shane McGaffey, chairman of the Pleasantville STRONG Steering Committee and a Board of Education member. “We have all of these groups coming to our weekly meetings and it shows how unified all the different agencies are in addressing these issues. We don’t sweep the issues under the rug; we’re dealing with them and getting results.”
Remaining financially sustainable when the federal grant runs out will be a challenge. The path to that, Malgarinos said, is for Pleasantville STRONG to become a nonprofit organization and raise funds within the community.
Malgarino’s five-year stint as coordinator officially ended at the end of September, and she will be working with Westchester County’s mental health services. She also expects to be involved in choosing her successor. The village has received a handful of applications for the position and will be interviewing applicants in the next couple of weeks, McGaffey said.
Looking back on her role with Pleasantville STRONG, Malgarinos said her biggest accomplishment was witnessing the many partnerships that were formed because of the coalition’s efforts.
“The buy-in, the compassion and dedication our community has shown has astounded me,” she said. “I’ve heard from many people that have an idea about how to keep our kids healthy and they ask me if their idea is possible – things like that are a remarkable testimony to how invested folks are. That piece for me is so humbling.”