Area towns have joined forces to take a stand against underage drinking, and through an initiative from Positive Directions, they've gone to creative lengths to show their commitment to the cause.

Positive Directions, a nonprofit, state-licensed outpatient treatment center located on Post Road West, has been a fixture in the community for close to 40 years. Its staff provides counseling, support and intervention services for individuals and families seeking treatment for alcoholism, drug abuse and addiction, problem gambling, other addictive behaviors, as well as depression, anxiety and family issues.

But that is only 50 percent of what Positive Directions does. The other half of its focus is prevention. Community-based prevention programs have long played a part in trying to steer people away from alcohol and drugs, and also give people effective parenting skills, but more recently, Positive Directions was chosen as the lead agency and received a Strategic Prevention Framework grant to form a tri-town coalition -- Westport, Weston and Wilton -- to target underage drinking.

The goal, said Pam Kelley, coordinator of the state prevention framework programs for Positive Directions, is "to bring together the three towns to one table to focus our resources on reducing underage drinking."

The grant had eight areas of focus areas to choose from and the coalition chose "family norms that accept and encourage drinking" and "peer norms that accept and encourage drinking." Kelley said "pervasive in those two areas is a low-risk perception of the harm of alcohol." However, Kelley said studies have shown that one episode of binge drinking by a 15-year-old, for example, can have an adverse effect on their ability to learn.

"It can be the difference between an A and a B," said Kelley.

Back in January, National Public Radio announced that a recent study led by neuroscientist Susan Tapert of the University of California, San Diego, compared the brain scans of teens who drink heavily with the scans of teens who don't. The team found damaged nerve tissue in the brains of the teens who drank. The researchers believe this damage negatively affects attention span in boys, and girls' ability to comprehend and interpret visual information.

Kelley said a female's brain doesn't fully develop until age 22. For a male, it's 24.

Former Westport First Selectman Marty Hauhuth, executive director of Positive Directions, said it's unfortunate that all too often, young men and women feel that they are invincible. The tri-town coalition has so far completed surveys in Westport, Weston and Wilton. Surveys with parents were done in all three towns. However, surveys with students were only done in two municipalities. The Westport school system has not yet been accommodating, according to Hauhuth.

Parent results were similar across the board. They overwhelmingly felt the most significant influence on their child's choices were their peers. Conversely, students in Weston and Wilton stated their parents had the most influence on them when it came to making decisions about alcohol or drugs.

"If we want our kids to have healthy lifestyles, we should make a point to communicate with them often, and clearly, about the dangers of alcohol and risky behaviors in general," Hauhuth said. She added that in order to communicate clearly with their children, parents need to understand their own values about alcohol and your own patterns of behavior.

The surveys showed a significant reduction in abusive behavior in seventh, eighth and ninth grade, but when students got older, reaching junior and senior year, there was a change in the parents and the students, where the drinking "began to be seen as normal, as a rite of passage, and there were parents who condoned it," said Hauhuth.

That, she said, shows "we have to work harder."

There will always be work to be done to get the necessary information out to parents, but in the three years the coalition has been around, Hauhuth said it has definitely had a positive impact and "that's based on years of trust and collaboration with the other players in this town."

The state grant, she said, allowed them to build on what was already in place. The coalition, in Westport alone, works with Positive Directions, the town's Human Services Department, United Way, the school system, the PTA Council. All of these entities that work together are jointly known as Positive Youth Development.

In addition to the surveys that have been done, the coalition has also worked to curb underage drinking by launching media campaigns, disseminating press releases and starting a parenting program called Life Skills, which educates parents about drugs, alcohol and young people and helps them with communication skills, so they can communicate their values and concerns to their kids.

Most recently, there was a tri-town poster and billboard contest, and students spanning seventh through 12th grade were invited to illustrate "why teens shouldn't drink" as part of an ongoing initiative targeting underage drinking. A winning poster from each town was selected and from those three, one was chosen to be reproduced on a billboard in Norwalk. The billboard that will be located at the intersection of Rt. 123 and Main Street, was called "Brain Dead, Think Don't Drink," and it was created by Staples High School sophomore Maeve Flaherty. All three students however, will be awarded a cash prize of $400. They are scheduled to receive the checks tomorrow night at Positive Directions' office. The posters will be displayed on a rotating basis within the three towns, and the top poster will appear as a billboard come March.

Kelley said was she was pleasantly surprised by all of the entries that came in.

"This was our first youth contest and we were very impressed with the level of both artistic skill and the knowledge regarding the topic of underage drinking among all of the entrants," said Kelley. "The messages the students conveyed in their posters shows they have a real grasp of the serious consequences of underage drinking."

Hauhuth said blame is sometimes unfairly laid on the schools for teen drinking.

"This is a community problem. It's not just the schools," she said.

The state is apparently pleased with the work of the tri-town coalition -- another round of grant funding is expected this summer.