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The P in PEER Services stands for prevention, and preventing substance abuse among youth is the primary way this 40-year-old organization helps keep its clients out of the criminal justice system, said Executive Director Kate Mahoney, MSW, LCSW.

“If we prevent kids from initiating drug or alcohol use, we keep them out of the criminal justice system. Our front line is prevention. Kids can put themselves in such risky situations,” she said.

Founded in 1975, PEER Services provides individual, group and family counseling to youth and adults struggling with substance abuse to residents of Evanston, Northfield, New Trier, Maine, and Niles townships and the north side of Chicago.

In addition to prevention services, PEER offers medication-assisted services, HIV testing and counseling, and DUI risk education and treatment. Its mission is “to prevent and treat the problems that substance abuse causes individuals, families and our communities.”

In Treatment

Most clients are referred to PEER Services by courts or schools, Ms. Mahoney said – some on the verge of substance abuse, some already with a habit of using illegal drugs or alcohol, and some having committed other crimes because of a substance-abuse habit.

Use of drugs or alcohol by youth is insidious, with increased use leading to poor decisions, inappropriate or anti-social behavior and eventually to collision with concerned family members, school authorities, or law enforcement, Ms. Mahoney said. But it is not love of drugs or alcohol that leads to those initial perilous actions. “Most people who get involved in substance abuse do so because of pain or trauma – or sometimes mental health issues,” she said.

A big part of the early intervention for youth who are at risk of getting involved with illegal substances is to help them see how their risky behavior may be at odds with their values, said Ms. Mahoney. “We talk about their future plans. For example, do they want to go to college?” she said.

Anger at friends or perceived enemies, anger at not having the clothes or money or other resources to fit in can lead to harmful decisions by teens and twenty-somethings, such as shoplifting for money, food or clothes; or fighting to earn “respect.”

“We try to help them get in touch with their feelings,” said Ms. Mahoney. “We used to call it ‘anger management.’ Now it’s ‘emotion management.’” Being poor in a community of varying income levels can be difficult for those on the bottom of the economic scale. “It’s hard for kids who go to school with kids who have more things,” Ms. Mahoney said. Students who feel they need better clothing will be steered to resale shops as a safe and legal alternative to shoplifting, she said.

Families play an important role in the lives of these youth, Ms. Mahoney said. Some families feel guilt, shame, or embarrassment about a child’s substance abuse problem and are reluctant to participate in family counseling. Other families may feel that family problems are best kept within the family and not shared with strangers. Still others find they cannot spare the time.

But, for the most part, Ms. Mahoney said, “We see great kids from great families. We meet people where they are. We encourage families to get involved, but if they can’t, we still see the kids.” She said PEER Services offers links to other resources, such as tutoring or health services, “so people see us as being useful instead of intrusive.”

Under a pilot program launched earlier this year with funding from Evanston Community Foundation, PEER offers young adult programs for those ages 18 to 26, “to respond to the specific needs of young adults,” Ms. Mahoney said. “These needs include learning to appropriately launch from their families, developing job skills, financial management skills, learning how to engage in positive, sober social relationships, stress management, etc.” Ms. Mahoney said PEER is looking not only for additional funding but also for partners in the business community “to provide skills-based sessions on managing money, negotiating leases, and networking for jobs, and managing relationships with supervisors and co-workers.”


PEER Services partners with other agencies that serve youth, including the Moran Center, School Districts 65 and 202, Presence Saint Francis and Evanston hospitals, which together help create a pathway back to society for youth whose activities take them to the edge of – or sometimes even into – a spiral of substance abuse.

The organization is also a member of the Evanston Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition, the mission of which is “to increase the health of Evanston’s youth by preventing alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use through community-level strategies.”

Prevention by Education

PEER’s FACTS Families Actively Challenging Teen Substance Abuse education class is an intervention class designed to help teens who have only been experimenting with alcohol and other drugs – not for those teens who are abusing illegal substances or are dependent upon them.

Both teens and their families attend two sessions of FACTS. Families can learn about the effects and consequences of substance abuse. Teens can learn how to make better decisions about whether or not to participate in risky behavior. Parents/guardians can meet other parents, have questions answered, learn about community resources, and learn strategies to help teens make healthier decisions.

At District 65: PEER Services offers two in-school programs, Too Good for Drugs and Project Alert, and one annual after-school program, Snowflake, at School District 65.

Too Good for Drugs is currently implemented only at Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies, and is part of the physical education curriculum for fifth- and sixth-graders. The program incorporates social emotional learning into preventive education. Prevention staff members from PEER Services teach the curriculum.

According to information on the website toogoodprograms.org, “Social Emotional Learning concepts are infused with established theories of Social Development, Social Learning, and Normative Education to build protective factors and mitigate risk factors for substance abuse.”

The seventh-grade Project Alert curriculum, which is incorporated into the District’s physical education program, “is designed to say no to drugs, alcohol, smoking, and peer pressure,” said Denise Rossa, a physical education teacher at Chute Middle School. Students create skits based on scenarios they may face and learn how to to handle particular situations. It is also informative, in that it educates about the dangers, harmful effects, etc. … Basically, it focuses on three methods of saying no,” Ms. Rossa said. She added that eighth-graders receive three “booster lessons” from the same program.

PEER Services prevention staff members provide continuing training and technical assistance to the physical education teachers to ensure the success of the program, Ms. Mahoney said.

Finally, Snowflake, which has been a part of PEER Services’ education curriculum since 2001, is part of the statewide initiative Operation Snowball. Sponsored by the Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association, Operation Snowball “teaches important life skills, such as decision-making, problem solving, communication, and drug refusal techniques in the coolest and most interactive ways possible,” according to PEER Services.

Snowflake in Evanston involves middle-school students who help plan the events, high school students, Northwestern University students, and adults from the community. The program is free to all District 65 sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders, and allows them to discuss issues they are facing.

At ETHS: PEER Services works closely with the Student Assistance Program for prevention, youth early intervention and treatment services within the school.

Staff members from PEER “also participate in the ETHS prevention team, composed of administrators, teachers, and other support staff. Adolescent clinicians provide both individual and group services at the school to students,” Ms. Mahoney said.

Anna Landmeier, MSW, LSW, CADC (certified Alcohol, and Drug Abuse Counselor,) of the Student Services program, said these services “address areas associated with adolescent substance use and development, and include but are not limited to early intervention and education, communication and social skills, self-esteem, healthy relationships, mindfulness, and problem solving.” She said ETHS also partners with other agencies to provide comprehensive services for students and families.

High school students’ use of cigarettes, alcohol, and many illegal substances is down nationwide, according to data from the 2016 national survey, Monitoring the Future, Ms. Landmeier said, and ETHS is seeing similar trends.

Consistent and continuous education about the risks and consequences of substance use will help delay and prevent use at an early age, Ms. Landmeier said. “The education piece should include information about identifying the signs and symptoms of substance abuse, local agencies that offer services and supports, and ways to access those services and supports,” she said.

ETRHS recognizes “the importance of fostering a positive school climate and promoting a safe environment, which encompasses a disciplinary policy and a school-wide philosophy that is restorative in practice,” Ms. Landmeier said. Addressing substance abuse and the risks involved is only one of the positive programs ETHS offers to resolve conflicts and repair harm, she said.

Recovery: Changing the Climate

Despite the progress in treatment for drug and alcohol abuse and the recognition by the medical profession that addiction and substance abuse are diseases, not moral lapses, the stigma remains. “In our culture, we don’t respect people who don’t drink,” Ms. Mahoney said. Conversely, the perception is that someone with a substance abuse or addiction problem “is misbehaving or has a weakness.”  She added, “Shaming and judging fly in the face of our saying addiction is a disease.” Recognizing and trying to combat this, PEER Services has launched a program called Step Up for Recovery, which celebrates those who are free from misuse of substances.

RoundTable series: Reaching Out to Opportunity Youth and Young Adults. Evanston has many youth and young adults who lack high school or college degrees, lack jobs and job opportunities, or who need help in improving their life chances. Some have been drawn into the criminal justice system. A number of dedicated people and organizations here are working 24/7 to reach out to these youth and young adults and to enhance their opportunities and lives. This is the final article of the series.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...