Rachael Van Horn
Woodward, Okla. —
It may seem like a funny way to reward local merchants, but that is exactly what youth volunteers and the Northwest Center for Behavioral Health are attempting to do when they walk into area stores and attempt to purchase tobacco or alcohol.
This week, more tobacco compliance visits - known as Reward Reminder Visits - to local stores were completed and the report card was a good one, said Northwest Center of Behavioral Health Prevention Coordinator Ashley Ferguson.
All of the clerks in all of the stores visited followed the proper age verification process and refused the sale, Ferguson said.
The way the program works, Ferguson said, is the Regional Prevention Coordinator conducts compliance checks whereby they and a youth volunteer under the age of 18 walk into a store and the youth volunteer attempts to make a tobacco or alcohol purchase.
"If the clerk asks for the ID and refuses the sale they are immediately praised by the staff member who is with the youth volunteer," Ferguson said.
But if the clerk proceeds to attempt to make the sale, the RPC staff member stops them and informs the clerk they are illegally selling tobacco or alcohol to a minor.
"We always send out a letter either way, and let the owners know that their employees were in compliance or not," Ferguson said. "That is because in many cases, these businesses offer their employees rewards, such as free meals for being in compliance."
In the other cases, where employees have attempted to make the sale, a letter goes out with the offer from RPC to train the employees to become more astute regarding compliance, Ferguson said.
"This is an activity that is meant to be a precursor whenever Alcoholic Beverage Law Enforcement (ABLE) comes out, Ferguson said. "Because when they come, they can fine them or write them a citation."
So, an outsider looking into the process might think, "Why does it matter to the people at Northwest Oklahoma Behavioral Health if area convenience stores get citations," right?
"If our rate in Oklahoma is too high in regards to non-compliance, those rates are tied directly to funding for mental health services here in our community," Ferguson said.
That means the people Ferguson and her staff at Northwest Center for Behavioral Health help will be less likely to receive those services.
Yet, they also have another altruistic motive and that's where the inclusion of local youth , who want to make a difference come into the picture.
Ferguson said that puzzle piece wraps into the whole purpose behind the practice, that uses local youths together with adults who accompany them.
According to Ferguson, the way the program works encourages youths who are already involved in community activism, such as the organization here called Students Working Against Tobacco (SWAT) to become a part of reducing some of the factors that are all a part of new tobacco habits being developed, Ferguson said.
"Tobacco use prevention is a puzzle and there is a lot of different pieces to the puzzle," Ferguson said. "Community norms, family norms...access is just one piece of the puzzle but this helps us take at least one of the pieces out of the puzzle and that helps."