Coffee With Emma Beall
Alexandrian Emma Beall earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at Tulane University and returned to the city to lead its substance abuse prevention efforts.
Emma Beall, the Coordinator of the Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition of Alexandria (SAPCA), was a student at the then T.C. Williams High School when she first became interested in public health.
Beall, then a 10th grader, saw a flyer from the Alexandria Campaign on Adolescent Pregnancy (ACAP) seeking young volunteers interested in writing, public speaking, event planning and graphic design for a summer project. Beall, a talented writer who became a mainstay on Theogony, the school newspaper, signed up. Her summer experience with ACAP led her away from a career in journalism and to a career in public health.
Beall graduated from high school in 2013. She earned an undergraduate degree and a Master’s degree in Public Health from Tulane University in New Orleans. After five years at Tulane, Beall loved New Orleans. She was conducting an extensive job search shortly before graduation when she heard from Noraine Buttar, her current supervisor whom she met when she volunteered with ACAP.
She said, “I had no plans to move back to Alexandria,” when she was offered a temporary federal grant-funded position with SAPCA that was to end on September 30 of that year. She saw this position as a tryout, and she took it even though she had not previously focused on substance abuse prevention.
She said, of the life-changing ACAP flyer she saw in high school, “That’s part of the work. You need caring adults who suggest that people apply for something they might not have known about because they are not as connected.” She said, “I really like sharing information with people so that they can make informed choices about their health and future.”
Beall, who lives in Shirlington, said, “It’s different living here as an adult.” She said finding housing in the Alexandria area is daunting. She compared finding housing in Northern Virginia to what she calls the “iron triangle” of health care—cost containment, access and quality—only two are available at any one time.
SAPCA is neither a traditional city agency nor a community service nonprofit organization. Instead, it is a community coalition that is housed in the city’s Department of Community and Human Services. SAPCA was founded in 2008 and in 2009 received funding through the Drug-Free Communities Support Program, a grant through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. SAPCA also receives funding from the state to prevent opioid abuse and was awarded a federal grant focused on preventing underage drinking in April 2020.
ACAP is also organized as a community coalition with members from many parts of the city. Beall’s former mentor, ACAP Coordinator Lisette Torres, is now her valued colleague.
Beall works with SAPCA’s board of directors, a group chosen by its membership in an election every two years. SAPCA’s 100+ members vote for the directors.
SAPCA’s initiatives include Drug Take-Back Day, which recently led to the collection of over 300 pounds of obsolete prescription and over-the-counter medications, the first ever National Fentanyl Awareness Day, and Project Sticker Shock which involves teams of youth and adults working with businesses to place stickers on multi-packs of alcohol as a reminder that it is illegal to purchase alcohol for underage consumers.
SAPCA’s focus areas are sharing information to prevent young people from using alcohol, marijuana, tobacco (principally e-cigarettes/vaping devices) and prescription and over-the-counter medication. She said, “The good thing is that most Alexandria youth are not using any of those substances.”
She said, “Our focus is on providing information and skills, for example, what to do if someone offers you something [and] giving people the skills to suggest an alternative and supporting youth to have positive opportunities, like a mentor.”
Beall said that substance use disorders can derive from a family history. She also pointed to perception of peer or parental approval of substance use and perception of risk as key factors related to youth substance use.
Beall fully supports ACPS’ effort to make Narcan available in the schools to counter the effect of opioid overdoses. She said “You need a tiered approach of prevention, intervention and treatment. My wheelhouse is the prevention area. I’m not involved in the treatment area” but, she said, prevention and treatment go hand-in-hand.
Beall said the opioid problem is present in Alexandria. The city’s Opioid Work Group, formed in 2015, is a multi-agency partnership comprised of representatives from a range of city services and community partners, including SAPCA, law enforcement and social services agencies. SAPCA’s role in addressing the opioid epidemic prioritizes prevention and education efforts, specifically among young people. She said, “My focus is on youth.”
Beall is skeptical of prescriptive or “just say no”—style prevention programs. She said, “That’s not effective—people don’t like being told what to do. Whenever I go into classrooms, I say, ‘I’m here to share information with you from scientists and researchers. I encourage you to check the sources if you hear something.”
Beall believes parents are critically important in setting boundaries but that the presence of caring adults, other than family members, in the lives of young people is essential. SAPCA provides information that helps parents and guardians talk to and support young people about substance abuse issues, including getting them involved in activities.
SAPCA and ACAP host trainings, for example, the Search Institute’s Intentional Relationships Workshop, for parents, youth service providers, and others to learn how to build developmentally appropriate relationships and how to support, and communicate with, young people.
Beall said, “Sometimes people hear the word “drugs” and the reaction is ‘Not my kid—I don’t need this information because my kid isn’t using drugs.’ The positive approach [asks] how can we support young people, as a parent, as a teacher, as another caring adult. Who doesn’t want to be a caring adult?”
The more that people are vulnerable and talk about what they’re dealing with, the more they will realize that they’re not alone and that there are resources. You’re not the only one. I think that if the work was just sharing information about substances it wouldn’t be as effective because you’re not providing alternatives. I don’t think you can make everything positive, but I do think that [we should] focus on the positives, focus on the opportunities and how to support young people.
Beall takes satisfaction in seeing young people find their interests and build their skills in, for example, facilitating conversations. She recently worked with Alexandra City High School students to plan and host a virtual event that involved young people discussing how to move forward from the pandemic.
SAPCA offers practical help. The coalition gives out locking medication boxes to help families secure prescription drugs.
Beall’s work with ACPS is primarily, she said, “at a systems level” that involves preparing lesson plans and information for teachers to share with students during advisory periods and working with the school system’s Family Life Education Workgroup, a subcommittee of the School Health Advisory Board. ACPS has two employees who oversee all of its substance abuse prevention and intervention activities.
Beall’s biggest frustration is capacity. She said, “There is never enough time to do it all. There is just so much that one person can do which is why we have a focus on volunteer recruitment and training to try to get the message out.”
Beall said her message to Alexandria is:
Prevention makes such a difference. Starting early, having conversations early, but also just the importance of having caring adults. Being a teenager, your body’s changing, your hormones are raging, you’re kind of independent, but not really. It’s a hard time—the brain is still developing. Having caring adults makes such a big difference. Being really intentional with those relationships is so important.