Defining community drug prevention in Texas and beyond

An interview with DrugFree Greenville’s former Executive Director, Sharon Kroncke.
Learn how Greenville citizens defied the odds to establish a long-lasting
approach to drug prevention

DrugFree Greenville gets calls from as far away as Ireland. Callers want to know how in the world we built and continue to sustain such a successful prevention effort. The answers are often simple—and, surprisingly, have much to do with a failed bid for federal money.

The questions come from communities nationwide, most of them much like Greenville, that are struggling with how to battle substance abuse. When they call, their questions typically range from what made Greenville citizens tackle something so difficult to how the citizens manage to keep the effort going.

The person who picks up the phone to answer those calls is DrugFree Greenville’s longtime executive director, Sharon Kroncke. Because even many Greenville natives have never had a chance to know the genesis of DrugFree Greenville, here’s a glimpse of what she tells those other communities:

Why did Greenville tackle something so difficult?

Back in the late ’80s, John Henson was the board president for Greenville’s Chamber of Commerce, and one of his goals was to look into what the situation was locally with illegal substances. He wanted to know: Did Greenville have a problem? And if so, is there something the chamber could or should be doing? He established a community task force to look into it. Probably because I was volunteering with the chamber and at my kids’ schools, John asked me to be on it.

The task force learned two very important things: first that, just like every other community in the U.S., Greenville did indeed have a problem; and second that, unlike other cities, we had a wealth of resources that could focus on solutions if only we could find better ways of working together.

How did Greenville decide on a strategy? And how did you know it was the right one?

The timing to form a community coalition was enhanced by the fact that in the ‘80s a lot of grants were available for drug prevention programs. We applied for one, and through that process identified what our situation here was and how we might address it. There were no community models, no studies about what worked and what didn’t. That’s part of the reason so many grants were available—the government was itself looking for strategies that might prove successful.

The model I did know was from my volunteer background with Keep America Beautiful. Clean Greenville (now known as Keep Greenville Beautiful) was established in 1986 and had named Sharon Leonard as its executive director. I’d very much bought into their model about how you change attitudes and then behavior. You have to repeat the message again and again in different ways, include all sectors of the community, and you have to be willing to wait for results. So, with Clean Greenville’s permission, we simply adapted their whole program to drug prevention!

The kicker is, we didn’t even get the grant. But the process of applying for it was definitive for what would become DrugFree Greenville. And 19 years later, we now have corroboration that the model indeed works. In fact, DrugFree Greenville is among the last living community coalitions from that era.

Grassroots efforts seem to go in cycles, and now they’re hot again, which is probably why Greenville is getting so many calls from other cities looking to mobilize their communities. They’re now in the same position we were all those years ago. They have few successful models to follow, so when their research leads them to us, they always want to know how we did it and how we continue to do it.

What were some of your first steps in getting started?

In that early grant process we had to prove that we had the community’s support, so we did a great deal of community education and used the name DrugFree Greenville. We apparently did such a good job that even when we didn’t get the grant, community organizations and members told us they’d be willing to support us anyway.

What we didn’t understand so much then was how much better it was for DrugFree to be locally funded. Other groups that won grants found that when that funding dried up, they hadn’t cultivated enough community support to survive. They’re gone, and DrugFree Greenville is still here.

Where does the money come from?

About five years ago, DrugFree Greenville did receive a grant, this one associated with the tobacco settlement. We pursued and accepted that one because it is managed locally by the Hunt Memorial Hospital District and because tobacco is a recognized “gateway” drug, making the grant clearly in line with our mission. It’s a partnership that has served us and the county well each of the last five years.

But the heart of our fundraising comes in the form of the annual spring Walkathon. In 1989, DrugFree organized its first Walkathon. These walkathons on behalf of all kinds of causes were popular at the time.

The Greenville version was a bit different, however. It was not the usual 20-mile hike, but a more doable 4 miles in order to appeal to multigenerational family groups. And instead of the usual pledges, walkers collected donations up front, which they brought with them the morning of the Walk.

Today walkers continue that custom with a new twist. Prior to the Walkathon, more than 125 significant donations will be made in the form of Walkopoly sign sponsors. The route, too, is different. That first Walkathon didn’t start downtown but rather at Crossroads Mall. None of us knew how many people would show up, and we certainly weren’t prepared for all the money. Children brought us jars of change. There were literally dollar bills blowing around the parking lot! It was incredible, the amount of money the people of Greenville raised that first year—$29,000. Our eyeballs were huge!

But what I remember the most was just how much people wanted to show their support for their hometown and their young people. One family came and carried a baby on their back the entire 4 miles of the Walk. They were there every year afterward with their kids, making a statement. At another early Walkathon, I remember a young Greenville Intermediate School student, Jayann Johnson, who asked her grandfather to join her at the Walk. Every year since, 17 years later, her grandfather Charles Whisenant travels to Greenville and still walks with her.

How does Greenville manage to keep it going?

One of the things we figured out early on is that if we’re going to remain a grassroots effort directly working with and through local people, it’s absolutely necessary to have some fun while we do the hard work that needs to be done. Clean Greenville promoted that a lot. If you don’t have fun while you’re working on issues that are so intensely serious, it’s easy to burn out.

That first Walk was indeed very fun. And afterward, we understood that Greenville was so supportive of drug prevention that DrugFree could have a life of its own apart from government funding. The chamber extended to us the same courtesy it had to Clean Greenville and installed a desk in the chamber office right next to Sharon Leonard’s. That’s when she and I became known as “The Sharons”.

Her support was essential. She shared everything she knew about the community and mentored me on a daily basis. Today DrugFree has our very own office in Wesley Street near downtown, but I remember with real fondness those early days almost literally rubbing elbows with her.

One of the greatest gifts of my life is that I’ve been associated with DrugFree Greenville long enough to see real change.

In January 1990, we formally launched DrugFree Greenville with a community-wide rally called “Greenville Comes Together” at the high school. We were amazed—2,500 people showed up to say that as a community we would not tolerate substance abuse any longer.

In 1999 we had our first Shattered Dreams event, when we role-play on a community scale the trauma of losing someone to drinking and driving.We have even had two extraordinary women coming onto DrugFree’s board of directors who are Shattered Dreams graduates. We worked with them when they were children, and I got to work with them as the exceptional adults they are.

People ask why we don’t write a book about how to build a community drug prevention program, or why I don’t go around speaking to other cities about it. But we’re too busy doing drug prevention to stop and explain it!

It only works when you have people like ours, with hearts and minds like those of the people of Greenville.