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Kearns coalition sets example for fighting addiction, strengthening community

Posted at 11:02 PM, Apr 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-27 01:11:47-04

KEARNS, Utah — A Kearns coalition is getting national attention, finding success with fighting drug addiction in the community.

But one might be surprised to find out the exact work Evidence2Success is doing, as it goes far beyond the scope of what someone might think of for addiction prevention.

Inside of Hope Unlimited Community Church in Kearns, refrigerators of various sizes and types line the walls of one of their rooms. Dozens of large boxes sit stacked, filled with food items.

"All of these boxes, all of this food is distributed out on a weekly basis," explained Executive Pastor Joshua Nielsen.

Hope Unlimited, Nielsen explained, gets the food from the Utah Food Bank to hand out to Kearns residents. Their need has doubled during the pandemic.

The people who come by are grateful for the help.

"We got a handwritten note two weeks ago. A woman said, 'Thank you very much. Because of food I received here, I was able to save up enough money to get my teeth fixed,'" Nielsen recounted. "That brought tears to our eyes."

Some of the people Hope Unlimited helps are battling more than just food insecurity. Knowing that, Nielsen indicated, is part of why the pantry serves such an important role in Kearns. For example, many suffer from drug addiction.

"If you can prevent and remove the items that cause addiction, then you don't have to fight addiction," he explained. "It's not reactive, it's proactive."

That's why the small community food bank partners with a coalition that Nielsen is part of called Evidence2Success (E2S). Nielsen joined five years ago as a community religious representative when the coalition first formed.

He knows the light often shed on his community.

"Every time Kearns is on the news, it's about some violent crime that has happened, and people associate Kearns with that stigma," he said.

It's a stigma that Nielsen and Evidence2Success have now been fighting for half a decade. And the group says they're seeing results.

On Saturday, Nielsen said E2S collected 178 pounds of prescription drugs for a takeback event -- two and a half times the amount they collected in a takeback last fall.

At an E2S board meeting Monday, the coalition debuted a new project with the Utah Department of Health that will study the needs of cancer patients living in Kearns.

"The focus is doing an assessment on the community and understanding what residents... how they are accessing health care and specifically how they are treating and dealing with cancers," said Evidence2Success member Charles Henderson.

E2S also runs programs for families and kids. One is called Guiding Good Choices, and the other is a high school program called Me Time at Kearns High.

The programs have spread to other towns and school districts. E2S Chair Becky Guertler said that the Granite School District adopted Me Time, and now runs that program in their other high schools.

Magna is starting its own E2S coalition, she said, and they are helping with the process.

Guertler described how the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) even recognized E2S Kearns on a national scale because of the work they are doing.

"We have gotten national attention because of our programs. We have had a lot of success, especially with growing this Me Time program," she said. "We also just implemented a Youth Council that is fighting to fill our food banks here in Kearns, especially in the schools. They are raising money for that."

Nielsen said he considers E2S a giant think tank filled with community leaders, organizations, businesses and residents. The Kearns Metro Township, Kearns Community Council and Unified Police Department Kearns Precinct are all involved, he said. So is the Salt Lake County Health Department, other county employees, state employees, United Way of Salt Lake, Granite School District, Chamber West Chamber of Commerce (where Guertler works), Hope Unlimited Community Church and others.

"You have all these experts that come up with these amazing ideas, and these ideas all blossom into the programs that we're running today," Nielsen said. "It's resulting in funding, it's resulting in community involvement, it's resulting in all of these organizations coming together and not playing in their own sandbox, but playing in the one big sandbox to help people."

The United Way, for example, has been doing its own work in Kearns not connected to E2S, but following the same theme of engaging the community members in discussion.

The Grassroots Leadership Team recently interviewed seven residents for a project that the United Way said was focused on uplifting voices who may not normally have a chance to speak, while building relationships with residents and listening to their experiences living in Kearns.

Grassroots organizer Biana Paulino from the United Way said she talked with those residents about safety in the community, specifically with school children.

"I think United Way tries to see students, not just in a school setting, but overall, I think everything impacts how students do well in school, the home, the community," Paulino said. "So I think with this, I would want there to be like still that focus on the things that impact students outside of school."

She said she next wants to talk to school children and have them take pictures of the places they feel safest in the community.

Guertler said she loves the perspectives the members of E2S each bring to the coalition, and they all have something different.

It's a kind of addiction prevention that takes a whole community approach, from all corners of Kearns. Diverse partnerships, working together.

"There is no end," Nielsen said of the partnerships. He listed some of them off. "The [Olympic] Oval, the Kearns Oquirrh Park Fitness Center, Kearns Rec Center, Utah Community Action, Granite School District... all these people come and play so that this place can be better."

The food bank run by Hope Unlimited is just one spoke in the hub of the wheel, Nielsen said. He opened one of the industrial fridges, filled with products donated by the USDA, like hamburger, ham, chicken and beef.

"All of this meat is going out to the community on Friday," he explained.

As they work to serve Kearns, E2S expressed that they want to build a stronger community.

"We have a really great community out here, and it's not always told that way," Guertler said. "But we really do have a lot of people that are super excited about the direction that we can take Kearns in."