PARKER – Roughly a million visitors pass through La Paz County every year, ranging from so-called river rats drawn to the Colorado River to RV-driving snowbirds seeking mild winters. Though the influx is good for the economy, officials say this area’s reputation as a party spot can give children the wrong message – namely that daily partying and drug use are normal. The Parker Area Alliance for Community Empowerment, or PAACE, was established in 1995 to combat this perception among the 3,000 or so permanent residents in the county seat of Parker. And after years of trying, this year the group was one of 197 programs nationwide to be awarded a federal Drug Free Communities grant. “Around here, we’ve changed the old line, ‘The third time is the charm.’ No, it’s the fourth time is the charm,” said Duce Minor, the group’s executive director. Minor said the $125,000 the group will receive each of the next five years will boost its efforts to empower children. “We have kids in leadership roles in everything we do,” he said. “If we do things their way, we’re generally successful.” PAACE offers several programs to keep kids involved in their community, including the Players After School Learning program for second- and third-graders and a parenting academy. They operate out of the Players 9th Street Youth Center, where those up to 18 years old are invited to just hang out. Everything is focused on positive messaging. “I wouldn’t say we beat kids over the head with the ‘just say no’ message. It’s more about making good life choices,” Minor said. Sheriff’s Lt. Curt Bagby, commander of the La Paz County Narcotics Task Force, said anti-drug education by the PAACE program is generally successful. “When they get the kids over there on a daily basis, they get familiarity with them and they get respect … and when they talk to kids there, they can hear what’s really happening, you know who’s doing what, what’s going on,” he said. To Bagby, PAACE organizers can sometimes be more successful than law enforcement when educating kids about drugs. “A lot of kids don’t really to care to listen to a cop talk about drugs,” he said. The Drug Free Community grant is given to communities that ensure effective, local solutions to local drug problems. According to Bagby, the two most abused drugs among local youth are alcohol and prescription drugs. “A kid selling a handful of Vicodin or Xanax or something like that, selling them for 5 bucks a pop. And the only reason a handful or a pocketful is because that’s what they were able to get a hold of (from parents or a neighbor’s house),” he said. According to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Arizona had the sixth-highest rate of prescription drug abuse at 5.66 percent of residents over the age of 12. In 2010, more than 10 percent of surveyed youth admitted to abusing prescription painkillers in the last 30 days. To address this particular issue, PAACE works with the Sheriff’s Office to organize prescription take-back events and educate parents about the dangers of keeping old prescriptions in the house. Sixteen-year-old Raven Evans, who volunteers with PAACE, said some of her peers have a hard time breaking away from drugs because their parents abuse drugs. “But the kids that I hang out with, they had that problem with their parents, but they break away from it. Most of them hang out here,” Evans said at the 9th Street Youth Center. Evans said at PAACE, there’s not the same pressures of school and work to just say no to drugs. “That’s like someone saying be careful when you’re swimming instead of teaching them how to swim,” she said. Parker native and former PAACE participant Oretensia Yazzie, whose two children now attend the after-school program, said she knows first-hand how the program can be effective. “A lot of kids turn to drugs,” she said. “I was one of those kids, I got stuck in that lifestyle.” Yazzie said being involved in the PAACE program made her more aware that she was heading down a dangerous path. “I realized that I was going to mess up my life if I didn’t make a change,” she said. PAACE director Minor said local kids can be influenced by what they see as a steady stream of partying weekenders who pass through the area. “What they see throughout the summer and the winter is an ongoing, daily party atmosphere,” he said. “But they’re (the visitors) only here for a few days and then they’re going back home where they’re responsible adults, but I don’t think the kids make that connection.” In response, Minor said PAACE has worked to draw focus away from that transient party scene and into the local, permanent community. As a result, Minor said PAACE has received a lot of support from law enforcement, the school district, the Colorado River Indian Tribes and now the Drug Free Communities Support Program. “At our monthly coalition meetings, we’ll have 30 to 35 people sitting around one big table talking about the issues together,” he said. “Attacking it from all those different angles is what’s making a difference.”

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