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Member Engagement Specialist Ricardo Torres Receives National Recognition

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Cardinal Innovations Healthcare Member Engagement Specialist Ricardo Torres received national recognition recently for his work with Alianza, the first coalition in Charlotte and North Carolina focused on the prevention of substance use among Latino and Hispanic youth.

Alianza de Prevención y Control de Sustancias (the substance prevention and control alliance) was established in July 2014 in the Center for Prevention Services to educate the Hispanic community about the dangers associated with substance use.

Torres, who has worked for Cardinal Innovations for two years, serves as vice chair of Alianza. He and the other Alianza executives accepted the Chairperson's Award from the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) during its national conference on February 6 in Washington, D.C. The Charlotte coalition was selected from 160 nominees. Alianza's other executives include: Chair Brant Aycock, Program Manager Jessica Montana and Grant Coordinator Karen Medina. In September, Torres will take over as chair for a two-year term.

Member Engagement Manager LaKeisha McCormick said, “Ricardo's work with the coalition has allowed Cardinal Innovations to have a more visible position to collaborate with other community-based organizations."

Alianza focuses its prevention efforts on three substances: alcohol, marijuana and prescription drugs.

“These were selected not only because they have high prevalence of use among youth, but also because of many misconceptions that exist within the (Latino and Hispanic) community around these substances," Torres said. “In most Latin American countries, the legal drinking age is 18 years old, but the legal drinking age is not heavily enforced so people begin drinking much earlier than that. There is also widespread belief that it is better for youth to learn how to drink at home, and that if the parent is allowing them to drink at home, the youth will not drink outside the home. This leads parents to allow their teens to start drinking with their permission."

Marijuana also is viewed differently in Latin America where it has been traditionally used medicinally. Recent immigrants often have familiarity with the cannabis plant from a young age, Torres said.

“Parents understand the potential benefits, but have not been exposed to messaging regarding the potential risks, especially for youth," he said.

Alianza also focuses on preventing the misuse of prescription drugs, which are controlled differently in the United States than in Latin America.

“Latinos who grew up in Latin America or hold strong ties to the region are used to purchasing medications without a prescription and storing and sharing medications," he said.

Alianza works to educate the Latino and Hispanic community through chats and forums about the laws, dangers and consequences of substance use. The group develops media campaigns, collects and maintains data to understand the needs of Latinos, and works in collaboration with suppliers for local festivals and retail establishments to ensure that they do not sell alcohol to minors.

“Like in most of the country, Charlotte is becoming increasingly diverse – and Latinos make up a significant portion of the newcomers," Torres said. “The stresses of moving to a new country are many, and Latinos are not immune to turning to substance use/misuse as a way to cope."

Cultural attitudes toward substance use and behavioral health also may prevent Latinos from admitting they have a problem and seeking help, Torres said. “Add to this the complications of language barriers and immigration status affecting access to care – and you can see the need to craft specific strategies to work with this population," he said.

Alianza has looked at unique aspects of Latino culture in its prevention efforts. The group focused on quinceañeras, the celebration of a Latina's 15th birthday where many Latino youths have their first exposure to alcohol.

“We realized this was a place where we could begin to educate Latino parents about the dangers of underage drinking and hopefully begin to change behavior," Torres said.

Torres is originally from Puerto Rico, but has lived in Charlotte since 1982. He and his wife Diana have two daughters, Katia and Mia. He said helping young people is what initially drew him to his career.

“I believe that I was called to this field," Torres said, adding that an internship in the schools while he was attending Central Piedmont Community College helped him see his path.

“I saw young Latino kids struggling in many aspects of their life. It kind of mirrored what I went through when I came to Charlotte back in May of 1982," he said. “I had to face racism and ignorance and the many issues that come with coming from another country and trying to find my identity here."

Torres said he realized he could make a difference for children affected by addiction and that hit home. “I was a child of an alcoholic and within my blood also lies the addiction. Working for eight years in prevention and treatment helped me see that there is hope and change is possible," he said.

Torres also has had a learning disability and depression, giving him a deeper understanding of what some Cardinal Innovations members experience in their lives. “The mental health aspect of my life comes from battling depression and, in my past, having had thoughts of suicide. Going through these issues myself and seeing others go through it helped me realize that I can make a difference in other people's lives," he said.

“Working for Cardinal Innovations, I have learned a whole lot more about (individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities). I see that my reason for being here is much bigger than just me. I can be a voice for those who have not been heard," he said.

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