GREENFIELD — Erin Jefferies spent Tuesday afternoon bopping around the liquor aisles of local stores. In each row, she checked for cameras and peeked at the register to see if anyone was watching.
Being well under the legal drinking age, Jefferies, who graduates this weekend from Greenfield-Central High School, had no business being near the bottles of beer and wine. She easily could have taken some, she pointed out.
Instead, she took pictures.
Jefferies is a member of the youth council for Neighborhoods Against Substance Abuse, whose mission is to promote healthy living habits in adults and youth in Hancock County. This week, in an effort to make it more difficult for minors to get their hands on bottles of booze, the council conducted its inaugural alcohol audit: The members visited dozens of markets and convenience stores in every corner of Hancock County to judge how each establishment stored its alcohol.
What they found was disappointing but not surprising, said Tim Retherford, Neighborhoods Against Substance Abuse executive director. Many retailers kept their liquor aisles in an area that could not be easily monitored by store staff.
In the coming weeks, youth council members will draft letters to the stores’ managers, asking them to re-evaluate their storage policies. The letters will include photos of the store’s liquor section along with suggestions about how the liquor could be kept in area that would discourage young hands from reaching for it, he said.
“Some states make it harder for kids to get access to alcohol; it is kept in a separate room, sometimes with a separate cashier,” Retherford said. “Here, (certain stores) keep their alcohol all the way in the back of the store where no one can see it. We’d like to see it kept somewhere it can be easily seen, so kids don’t feel like they can take it.”
Jefferies has heard stories of classmates having run-ins with police after attempting to fill a backpack with bottles of liquor and exiting stores undetected. Before the group’s alcohol scan this week, however, Jefferies said she never thought about how easy it is for minors to steal alcohol from local stores.
She and other youth council members found that alcohol often was kept near snack foods teens might purchase. Some bottles were small enough to slip into pockets. Other canned alcoholic beverages were similar in size and color to energy drinks that are popular with teens.
The group’s leaders are hopeful the recent alcohol audit will become a routine occurrence, Retherford said.
The youth council has been in place off and on for about 20 years. It is made up of 16 students in various grade levels; four each from the county’s four high schools. The students chosen for the group are selected by their school’s administration.
Students on the youth council serve as Neighborhoods Against Substance Abuse’s eyes and ears inside the county’s high schools, said Hancock County Sheriff’s Sgt. Christine Rapp, the department’s D.A.R.E. officer and a member of Neighborhoods Against Substance Abuse’s board of directors.
The insight these teens offer is unmatched, she said.
“They see things in a much different way than we do, and they can point us in the right direction on certain issues,” Rapp said.
For example, several years ago, Neighborhoods Against Substance Abuse was preparing to roll out a campaign aimed at keeping kids away from tobacco.
When the board ran the idea past members of the youth council, however, the students confided that alcohol use among their peers was more prevalent than cigarette use. That promoted further research, which ultimately led to the creation of the county’s Underage Drinking Task Force, Rapp said.
In addition to spreading the word in their schools about the dangers surrounding substance abuse, the youth council holds educational events regularly and has produced commercials about living above the influence in Hancock County.
The organization is a great way to make an impact within the school and to help further Neighborhoods Against Substance Abuse’s mission, Jefferies said.