Folks at the New Milford Youth Agency want to create a stigma against underage drinking.

Impossible?

Not as far as New Milford Youth Agency intervention program manager Kevin Kwas is concerned.

In fact, Mr. Kwas is counting on it being possible because he and fellow youth advocates know young lives are at stake.

Far from naive, the 11-year NMYA staffer is well aware the fight against underage drinking is a constant battle.

To some, he said, teenage consumption is seen as a rite of passage that's ignored until another family is devastated by an alcohol-induced tragedy.

"It's always a hot topic, always a concern," Mr. Kwas said.

According to the Connecticut Department of Office and Policy Management, 80 percent of high school teens say they have consumed alcohol.

So in this season of proms, graduations and summertime sleepovers, the agency's substance-abuse prevention council is embarking on a grassroots prevention effort.

The council wants to cover the town with "Care Enough to Say No" lawn signs and billboards aimed at encouraging adult party hosts to think twice before serving -- or allowing -- teenagers to drink alcoholic beverages at their homes.

The signs embrace the state's "Set the Rules" motto: "Don't Provide; Don't Ignore; Don't Excuse Teen Alcohol Use."

The Housatonic Valley Coalition Against Substance Abuse in Bethel provided NMYA with a $6,000 substance abuse grant to help pay for this and other substance abuse prevention efforts.

"We want to get these (signs) out everywhere we can," Mr. Kwas said, "especially in the bigger neighborhoods and big intersections."

One of the biggest challenges in this effort comes from the few who think they are protecting teens by allowing them to drink in their supervised homes.

Not only is that an erroneous assumption, Mr. Kwas said, it is against the law.

"We want to create a stigma against the notion that it is okay to serve alcohol," Mr. Kwas said.

Beyond the potentially tragic results, Mr. Kwas said adults caught hosting teen parties where alcohol is served can find themselves in serious legal trouble.

New Milford is one of about 40 towns in the state with a local ordinance allowing police to enforce the state law against underage drinking on private property.

"They can lose everything," Mr. Kwas said.

Still, there are those who take the risk, he added.

Tracie Nixon appreciates the Youth Agency taking aim at this issue.

The mother of three nearly adult children -- her youngest, Emily, is an 18-year-old senior at New Milford High School -- said she and her husband, Tom, are "black and white" about the no-alcohol policy for their children's parties at their home.

At the same time, Ms. Nixon is aware of other parents who say they'd rather take away the car keys and let their teens drink at home because that way they maintain control.

HVCASA prevention coordinator Heather Sadler said the vigilance against underage drinking cannot be underscored.

Whenever a teenager drinks alcohol "they are taking such a gamble," said Ms. Sadler, who noted studies have proven teen brains are more seriously impacted by alcohol consumption.

"These yard signs speak to parents, and though it is hard to say `no,' they need to care enough to say `no' and not look the other way," Ms. Sadler said.

"Constant reminders," she added, " that's what it takes."

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The New Milford Youth Agency will place lawn signs around the community in coming weeks.

Those who want a free sign should call the NMYA at 860-354-0047.

"We want to create a stigma against the notion that it is okay to serve alcohol."

Kevin Kwas

New Milford Youth Agency