Sept. 7, 2009— -- Nestled along Maine's coast, the small town of Camden appears simply idyllic -- a beautiful harbor, a downtown area that draws in tourists and green space for kids to play.
But first impressions can be deceiving.
"On the surface it looks beautiful and post-card perfect, but underneath as in all communities, we have some issues," said Dalene Dutton, the local coordinator of Communities That Care, a program to help communities deal with substance abuse.
Drug and alcohol abuse reached crisis levels in 2001, when Maine's teen suicide rate was 50 percent higher than the national average.
"Many of us felt kind of helpless and didn't know what we could do to help kids," Dutton said.
But Camden has transformed into a model for raising healthy kids, using Communities That Care, an innovative program that surveys students starting in the fifth grade to determine their risk factors.
The approach starts with a community coordinator who rallies, and even trains, adults -- from teachers, to police, clergy and volunteers -- on how to guide the town's kids.
Over the last five years, researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) followed Camden and 11 other towns as each implemented the CTC system and compared them to 12 communities that didn't.
The results were dramatic: By the eighth grade, students in towns where the CTC was in place were more than 30 percent less like to take up alcohol and tobacco and 25 percent less likely to engage in delinquency than in those where it was not.
Researchers found that communities can dramatically reduce the number of children getting involved with risky behavior, such as drugs and alcohol, through this coordinated approach that brings together several elements in a local community.
This is not only effective, it's also inexpensive. Most communities already have these kinds of resources: all they need is someone to bring them together.
"The coordinator is very important, but it's not just a person with a lot of personal characteristics, it's a person who uses prevention science to guide the work of community coalitions," said Dr. David Hawkins, author of the study.
The concept is simple and in Camden, it has made a world of difference in the community's efforts to keep kids on the straight and narrow.
"To be effective for all kids in the community, you have to go up and look at what's pervasive in the community, how can we change those underlying predictors for problem behaviors," Dutton said.
"It's not just the school any longer that's being expected to address all aspects of the child, whether academically, socially, developmentally," said Patricia Hopkins, superintendent of schools in Camden.
Every year, Camden's kids are surveyed -- a check-up on how they're coping -- to make sure none fall through the cracks.
Researchers say this approach could work well beyond Camden. It has been adopted in Pennsylvania and Hawkins said it is being considered in at least five other states.
"It can work anywhere, the key to communities that care is that first word, community," Dutton said.