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Helping Herndon's Youth

Greater Herndon Community Coalition established to help students make good decisions, provide opportunities.

A quadriplegic victim of a drunk-driving crash turned motivational speaker, note cards from elementary school students urging teens not to drink or do drugs at prom and parent information nights — the Greater Herndon Community Coalition is responsible for each of these programs.

Educating area youth and parents about making positive choices, the coalition continues to look for ways to expand its drug and alcohol free programs.

But, if the proper funding is not approved next year, the programs could be lost.

"We are strengthening the protective factors of children so they make better decisions," said Lisa Lombardozzi, coalition coordinator. "Hopefully, the programs will decrease drug use and alcohol use."

Established in 1993 by Fairfax County Public Schools and its Safe and Drug Free Youth Office, the county-wide school-community coalitions were organized around the boundaries of each high school and their feeder schools. Currently, 19 coalitions exist within Fairfax County, according to Diane Eckert, program specialist for the FCPS safe and drug free office.

In Herndon, the coalition was created in October 1994 after concerned parents, educators and community organizations, including the police and recreation departments, met to discuss the issues today's students face. After the meeting, it was determined more needed to be done in the community to ensure the safety of area youth.

The Greater Herndon Community Coalition includes public and private schools within the Herndon-Reston area. Public schools include Aldrin Elementary, Armstrong Elementary, Clearview Elementary, Dranesville Elementary, Herndon Elementary, Hutchison Elementary, Herndon Middle School and Herndon High School.

"IF FUNDING GOES away, that's $2,500 that may no longer be revenue for after school classes," said Lombardozzi about the possibility the coalition could lose federal funding next year.

The group is funded from the No Child Left Behind Act, through the Federal Safe and Drug Free Schools and Community subsection. However, a strong possibility exists that President George W. Bush will not sign the legislation to continue the funding for next year, Lombardozzi said.

While the group does receive community donations, it has not received enough to keep all programs in place if federal funding runs out.

"We keep hoping, by recruiting more people for meetings, they can help us come up with more creative ways to get funding," said Lombardozzi, also the Herndon High School Parent Teachers Association president.

Currently, the coalition pays for a late bus to run at Clearview Elementary so that selected children can receive after school homework assistance and supervision. At Herndon Middle, the coalition funds after school programs to give students a place to go other than the streets or an empty house when classes end.

"We're trying to raise their self-esteem," said Becky Field-Ross, coalition treasurer. "Some of these kids don't believe in themselves and we're trying to make them see they are good people."

The coalition also organizes parent meetings — including one specifically for Hispanic parents, motivational speakers, sponsors the Herndon High School Homecoming Parade and provides support to the high school's after-prom and all night graduation celebration events, among other things.

Trying to gain more public awareness, the coalition hopes area businesses will step up and get involved with the group, said Nate Herendeen, guidance counselor at Clearview and Aldrin elementary schools.

"Businesses need to realize that they need to influence a child's life," he said. "Once [children] leave school, where do they go?"

COALITION REPRESENTATIVES include PTA members, school administration officials — including guidance counselors, neighborhood resource department staff, a police officer, FCPS safe and drug free youth office staff, teen center directors and any other member of the community involved with children and teens.

To increase communication regarding teens in the Reston-Herndon area, Tommy Cajanding, director of the Reston Teen Center, sits on the Herndon coalition.

"The main importance of the coalition is that we keep kids off the street and let them know that adults are here to help them, watch them and hang out with them," he said. "We try to create a program that opens kids’ eyes to what is outside of Herndon and Reston."

To create a strong relationship between children and area police, Herndon senior police officer and youth crime prevention officer G. Warren Brathwaite sits on the coalition. Last year, when the coalition presented a gang awareness program for parents, Brathwaite facilitated communication to the police department's gang task force.

"The whole premise underlying the coalition is that it's going to work toward issues that are related to drug prevention," said Helene Lepkowski, FCPS cluster coalition representative from the safe and drug free youth office.

Each year coalitions focus on two areas of concern. Last year the topics were gangs and underage drinking. Because underage drinking is an issue that is not disappearing, it is a topic again this year, as is bullying in schools, Lepkowski said.

To increase community awareness, the coalition created a link on the Herndon High School Web site that connects to the coalition's own site. A quarterly newsletter is also sent out detailing the group's recent accomplishments and upcoming parent programs are advertised at each school. To gain more community support the group also conducts open meetings the third Wednesday of each month.

"The handful of us that are doing this are trying to make a difference," said Field-Ross. "But, we can't do it by ourselves."