“More and more kids at younger and younger ages with more complex problems.”
That is the troubling trend Dr. William Wooten saw in the mid-1990s as the director of a treatment center in Evansville, Indiana. The addiction medicine specialist and family practice physician wondered whether the community needed to provide more prevention or more effective prevention strategies, so he rallied key community leaders to figure out what could and should be done.
The process of seeking solutions led to the 1998 creation of Youth First, Inc., a not-for-profit agency with a mission to strengthen youth and families by providing evidence-based programs that prevent substance abuse, promote healthy behaviors, and maximize student success. From the beginning, Youth First focused on following the best practices in prevention, measuring outcomes, and continually improving to get the best results.
This is no easy task in a world searching for quick fixes. To succeed, Dr. Wooten knew Youth First had to take a collaborative, comprehensive, regional, and sustained approach to prevention. He often says that starting a not-for-profit agency was tougher than going to medical school, but fortunately, he was naïve enough and persistent enough to do it.
Dr. Wooten also convinced area schools to collect data, which confirmed his concerns: local youth were more likely to engage in binge drinking or daily alcohol, marijuana, or tobacco use than state and national averages. Teen substance abuse and associated behavioral health concerns are linked to increased suicides, self-harm, school dropouts, crime, poverty, unemployment, teen pregnancy, and a lifetime of other struggles.
To prevent and reduce these risks, Youth First settled on a model of embedding specially trained social workers and evidence-based prevention programs in schools to strengthen relationships, readiness, and resiliency in young people and their families. Youth First staff members become specialized mentors for students and prevention coaches for parents and teachers.
Over time and with lots of support from others, Dr. Wooten’s dream of a more effective, systematic approach to prevention came true. The percentage of young people abusing substances dramatically declined in the region served by Youth First. Independent evaluations and personal testimonials confirm Youth First’s programs and services transform and save lives.
At the same time, new issues continue to emerge, like school shootings, bullying, and social media safety. Fortunately, Youth First has established a proactive system of care that is equipped to tackle the evolving risks facing today’s young people and their families.
Thanks to Dr. Wooten’s vision and passion, Youth First has become a trusted and valued prevention partner working closely with schools, churches, businesses, and other community agencies to improve the social and emotional well-being of young people. In response to the opioid crisis, the state’s Commission to Combat Drug Abuse called for the expansion of Youth First’s prevention model. The Sagamore Institute named Youth First one of Indiana’s “Bright Ideas,” which recognizes promising solutions to difficult issues. The agency has also received the Indiana Achievement Award honoring exemplary non-profits and the Non-Profit of the Year Award from the Southwest Indiana Chamber of Commerce.
Few physicians step out of their offices and into the limelight to champion causes much less start a non-profit and become a true catalyst for change in the community, but Dr. Wooten felt compelled to help youth and families avoid the tragedies he saw every day in his treatment practice. He poured his heart and soul into Youth First, along with his professional expertise and financial resources. In return, he is inspired by the testimonials from individuals helped by Youth First.
One young child told her Youth First Social Worker, “You make my heart feel good.” Through his boundless energy and compassion, Dr. Wooten has made sure thousands of hearts feel good.