Tar Heel of the Week

Wanda Boone finds positive messages for Durham’s young people

CorrespondentJanuary 4, 2014 

“Everything stems from the communities that people live in and whether they are healthy or unhealthy,” says Wanda Boone, who operates Together for a Resilient Youth (TRY) from an office on East Main Street in Durham.

JILL KNIGHT — jhknight@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Wanda Boone

    Born: Feb. 25, 1951, in New York City

    Residence: Durham

    Career: Founder and director, Durham Together for Resilient Youth; co-pastor (with her husband), At His Feet Ministries International

    Affiliations: Co-founder, East Durham Children’s Initiative; chairwoman, African-American Improvement Project; member, Northeast Central Durham Leadership Council

    Education: Certifications as a senior medical technologist and senior research specialist, Duke University Medical Center

    Family: Husband, Earl; children, Kimberly, Darian and Darryl; three grandchildren

    Fun fact: One of Boone’s favorite activities is dancing, and she does a type of liturgical dance as part of a women’s ministry at churches across the state.

— At the time of year when many people are tossing out their worst habits in favor of better ones, Wanda Boone is keeping her eyes on her long-standing goal of improving the habits of Durham’s young people.

Boone founded Durham Together for Resilient Youth, or TRY, more than a decade ago to help steer the city’s youth away from drugs, alcohol and other habits that can sabotage their lives at an early age.

The problem she seeks to address is daunting, according to Duke University research commissioned by TRY: More than 1,000 adolescents are addicted to drugs or alcohol in Durham County. Thirty percent of Durham high school students surveyed said they had been offered drugs on school grounds.

TRY unites parents, government, faith groups and others to attack the problem from a variety of angles, including working directly with youth, providing parents with lock boxes for prescription drugs and helping student smokers get counseling.

The group has found its stride in the past few years, garnering a major grant and involving more than 150 businesses in an effort to keep alcohol from children. Nearly 2,000 Durham adolescents have pledged to stay drug- and alcohol-free thanks to TRY.

Boone, also co-pastor of a church with her husband, says surrounding young people with as many positive messages as possible is the key to preventing bad habits from forming.

“I have found that the environment is critical to the way young people grow up,” she says. “Everything stems from the communities that people live in and whether they are healthy or unhealthy.”

Boone’s campaign against alcohol and drug abuse has roots in a childhood shaped by her father’s alcoholism, her career with a drug-testing company, and her experience as a foster parent. Local leaders say her efforts are bearing fruit.

“Wanda is a remarkable community activist, and she’s making a real difference on the issues of alcohol and drug awareness in Durham,” City Councilman Steve Schewel says. “Wanda’s ability to organize and inspire others is amazing. She draws people to her with her energy and her can-do attitude.”

Exposed to trouble

Boone, 62, spent much of her own youth in Teaneck, N.J., part of one of only a handful of African-American families. It was an idyllic community, she says, devoid of the racial prejudice she would encounter when she moved to Durham in 1971. But her own childhood was marred by physical abuse at the hands of her alcoholic father.

“On the outside, we looked like the Huxtables,” she says. “But on the inside, it was horrific.”

Her own experience led her to help other children, taking in the three children of an acquaintance in the 1970s before she and her husband had their own children. Later, the couple became therapeutic foster parents, taking a series of special needs children into their home.

Over the years, they noticed the level of substance abuse and other mental health problems seemed to be growing among the children, causing them to seek community resources to help them.

“At first, they would have behavior problems that could be resolved in the family atmosphere,” she says. “But as time went on, they needed more.”

Boone also worked for many years in quality assurance at LabCorp as the company was rapidly growing and drug testing became more widespread throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

She was part of a national panel that helped initiate drug testing for certain government workers. The job led her to think about the wide-ranging impact that substance abuse could have on a young person’s life.

“I thought, ‘Look at how many people are out there taking drugs,’ ” she says. “If they can’t pass drug tests, they’ll never get a job.”

In 2002, she was laid off from her job, which turned her attention toward doing, as she says, “what I was put on the Earth to do.”

Building resilience

Boone says her plans for TRY quickly crystallized. By the time she started, she had helped form the Coalition for Youth in Chapel Hill-Carrboro and wanted to form a similar organization in Durham.

She started by making contacts in government, churches and communities that were already working with young people and worked to unite them behind a series of programs that have expanded over the years.

Early on, TRY commissioned an extensive study on substance abuse in Durham County, using that data to target specific problems. Those efforts got a boost when the group was awarded a five-year, $625,000 federal grant, starting in 2012.

TRY is still a small organization, with Boone its primary paid employee. It brought in donations of about $70,000 in 2012, according to its federal tax form.

Among TRY’s programs is the Good Neighbor Initiative, which asks businesses to sign a voluntary pledge that they will not sell alcohol or tobacco to minors and take other healthy steps such as stocking produce and discouraging loitering. They also agree to keep their storefronts well lit.

Boone has worked to stop the sale of so-called “alco-pops,” popsicles with alcohol that she says are marketed to children. She has worked directly with store owners not to stock them and has helped lead an effort – unsuccessful so far – to ban them statewide.

She recently worked with Durham Public Schools on a policy that would allow students suspended for smoking to go through a program to help them quit and return to school, much as students suspended for drug offenses have been able to do after receiving counseling.

One of the group’s programs, Bands Against Destructive Decisions, or BADD, is an education effort centered on teenagers and their families. Named for the red bands worn by its student leaders, the groups allow students to spread the message of avoiding drugs, alcohol and tobacco to their peers through social media.

Boone sees her work as an effort to combat a series of cultural shifts that have made substance abuse so appealing to youth – the packaging of alcohol in larger and more kid-friendly forms, the glamorization of drug abuse by musicians and other popular figures, the rise of prescription drug abuse by people of all ages.

“When we were growing up, you might get your hand on a beer, but it was only eight ounces and didn’t taste very good,” she says. “Now you have this whole culture encouraging you.”

But she’s also helping youth transcend the perennial stressors – abuse, poverty, neglect – that can drive them to dangerous habits, much as she overcame her own past.

“I knew that I could pattern my life in a way that was different from what I knew, and they can, too,” she says. “That’s what resilience is.”

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