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Throwing a lifeline to tormented parents

Crystal meth has been the catalyst for a locally driven group that continues to have an impact across Alberta. The Strathcona County organization, Parents Empowering Parents (PEP), is only 20 months old but in that relatively short time, it's a thrown a lifeline to parents who have watched drugs drag their children into an abyss that shatters whole families.

PEP was launched in June 2004 by Audrey Bjornstad, a parent of a drug-addicted teen, as well as family support worker Maralyn Benay, and probation officer Tina Dow. Today, it's a registered society and registered charity that's helped launch chapters in Red Deer and Parkland County. It's also been instrumental in Bill 202, provincial legislation that gives parents the authority to send a child to detox. As well, Step Out Safely (SOS), a unique anti-bullying, violence and abuse program, is working under its auspices. "We moved from denial to action in Sherwood Park," said Bjornstad, whose involvement arose out of her son's addiction to crystal meth."People are talking about addiction," she added. It's not hidden in the closet."

Benay agrees the community has become more open to discussing drug use."People are starting to realize it can happen to anyone's child," she said. "Whether you have them in soccer five times a week or ballet." But a stigma admittedly remains."Parents are afraid to come forward and admit their kids have drug problems. Everybody points a finger at the parents,"said Benay, who works for McMan Youth, Family and Community Services."The parents we know are great and we don't know what they could have done better."

Bjornstad has seen many doors open for her as she successfully tried to convince provincial legislators to acknowledge drug problems. She's now moving onto the federal level to knock on the door of Justice Minister Vic Toews. Bjornstad had a meeting scheduled with Toews when he was justice critic. An election intervened, and now that he's heading the portfolio, she's more anxious than ever to talk with him. When she gets her foot in his door, she'll lobby for a tougher Youth Justice Act, the creation of drug courts, mandatory treatment, minimum sentences for drug offences, and stricter sentences for drug pushers and manufacturers.

Bjornstad believes Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has already taken a good step by announcing it won't proceed with the Liberals' plan to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. "We have to give a single message – drugs are illegal; period," she said. PEP continues to remain in high demand from Alberta communities interested in developing drug strategies. Bjornstad and Benay were even recently invited to make a presentation to southern Alberta's RCMP detachment commanders in Banff. The anti-bullying program SOS is also in high demand, so much so that its one team of four social workers can't keep up with the invitations flowing in. Without secure funding, Benay says they're not promoting SOS, and yet, she's continually receiving requests to host workshops at schools in the region.

With so much work on the table, Bjornstad and Benay are pleased PEP has become a registered society because it can now apply for a broader range of grants, accept charitable donations, and issue tax receipts for contributions. PEP continues to meet every second Tuesday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at County Hall. Anyone is welcome to drop in. PEP also operates U-Turn Youth, a support group for recovering addicts.

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