'PAWS' for the laws in new teen campaign

Posted 3/18/21

By ARDEN BASTIA Bob Houghtaling says there's a lot to be learned from young people. "It's awesome working with young people. They're really battery chargers. When I grew up in the '60s, we made some advancements in terms of social justice and civil

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

'PAWS' for the laws in new teen campaign


Bob Houghtaling says there’s a lot to be learned from young people.

“It’s awesome working with young people. They’re really battery chargers. When I grew up in the ’60s, we made some advancements in terms of social justice and civil rights, but this group of kids today are even more accepting than we were when it comes to LGBTQ issues and race. It’s exciting that we’ve gone to another level of acceptance,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

Houghtaling is the director of the East Greenwich Substance Abuse and Mental Health programs with the East Greenwich Academy Foundation (EGAF), and has been in the role for 38 years. He grew up in Warwick, and his parents still live in the same house.

Before Houghtaling was hired as director, he worked with juvenile offenders at Ocean Tides School, taught graduate courses in education at Providence College, and worked at the Rhode Island Department of Education as a consultant.

He first got involved in the mental health field after a tragic accident in East Greenwich. In 1983, an East Greenwich high school student, who was intoxicated during the day, hit and killed a Warwick resident.

“The community went crazy about it,” Houghtaling said. “At that time, I was working as a clinician at a halfway house in a treatment program for men with some rough backgrounds. The foundation was looking for someone who could relate to kids, so they contracted with me to come in and create a program, and I’ve been working there ever since.”

Houghtaling says he’s still in touch with the victim’s family to this day. “Those kinds of tragedies and accidents impact families and communities for almost ever,” he said.

The goal of EGAF is to work on producing ways to help people better understand each other, through services that educate both adults and youth about social justice concerns, substance abuse, and mental health.

The EGAF also places an emphasis on addressing minority populations and equipping young people with the language needed to talk about race or LGBTQ issues.

“It’s a challenge in East Greenwich, since we’re predominately white,” he said in an interview. “How do we prepare our kids to go off in the world and meet people with different experiences and religious beliefs and diverse backgrounds? It’s our responsibility to recognize what’s going on in the world to prepare our young people to engage with it.”

Houghtaling’s job is twofold. He is responsible for intervening with individuals, both young people and adults, who have mental health and substance-related concerns. He is also in charge of preventative measures, like team building and community development, where he tries to “ameliorate a problem before it occurs.”

“As a counselor and a helper, the best thing you can do is get rid of the excess so people can be who they naturally are,” he said. “If you can create dynamics to facilitate conversation, offer support for people to be who they are, maybe you’ve done something right.”

Reinvents delivery

Houghtaling has noticed over his years of work that societal issues and stress factors change, so it is key that he reinvents the delivery methods for people.

Among the ways EGAF gets the message out is through interactive newscasts, videos and podcasts, most of which are hosted by local high school students. These programs are “opportunities and attempts to keep kids engaged, create common language, and offer a way of connecting people to others beyond the perfunctory Zoom arena,” he said.

“After you boil away all the fat, it’s, ‘Don’t drink, don’t do drugs and don’t drive impaired,’” he said. “But sometimes you have to mix it up.”

For example, there’s the “Lucy’s Booth” podcast, named after the famed “Peanuts” character, which addresses mental health issues and concerns with featured speakers and guests. The most recent episode, released on Monday, features Houghtaling and community member Sophie Brusini celebrating Irish culture by recognizing dance and music from the Emerald Isle, as well as discussing stereotypes pertaining to excessive drinking.

There’s also the “Magical History Tour,” a webseries on the EGAF Facebook page hosted by Houghtaling and David Amirsadri, a reporter for the East Greenwich News. The series takes viewers on location to local sites like the East Greenwich Jail and the First Evangelical Lutheran Church to learn about history and culture.

The EGAF also includes the ASAPP program, which teaches kids to assess, seek support, take action, proceed and develop prevention techniques.

Houghtaling acknowledges that anxiety and depression are on the rise among young people, particularly among school-aged youth. The ASAPP program promotes building resiliency through viable identification and coping skills with the goal of removing the shame and stigma around asking for help. High school student volunteers join Houghtaling in the ASAPP program to bring the message to local middle and elementary schools.

While some campaigns and activities are targeted specifically to the East Greenwich community, Houghtaling encourages adults and youth from all over to check out the forums and podcasts that EGAF offers.

Pause & follow the laws

Houghtaling’s latest campaign is the PAWS Campaign, aimed to bring awareness to drug-impaired driving.

Houghtaling says this campaign is needed “now that we’re on the cusp of legalizing marijuana, and alcohol continues to be a major concern.”

He says he and other drug prevention counselors are concerned about young people consuming marijuana and alcohol in isolated settings, and impaired driving.

To promote the message, Houghtaling’s wife, Elaine, a graphic designer, developed PAWS.

PAWS, a cartoon cat sporting funky sunglasses and a patterned tail, is described by Houghtaling as “looking a little like Elton John,” and reminds young people “to pause and follow the laws.”

“PAWS may have nine lives. Do you?” reads one of the posters. “They’ll always pause to know the laws.”

Houghtaling was adamant about PAWS being a gender-neutral character to promote inclusivity and societal acceptance. He plans to spread the PAWS message via posters in local schools, and stickers accompanying take-out orders in East Greenwich.

“Instead of getting up and giving a speech or handing out flyers, we ended up creating a character that speaks volumes in a short ad,” he said. “You can get the same information that you could get in a 500-word article. We wanted something that was funny, cute and informative.”

Houghtaling doesn’t expect a poster or sticker to change the world, but his goal is to break the stigma of mental health and promote accessible language for young people to talk about the issues they are facing.

Houghtaling and EGAF will be hosting a PAWS community forum on Wednesday, April 7. The forum will feature PAWS and friends from law enforcement, mental health support and student volunteers from the ASAPP program. The presentation will discuss marijuana, alcohol, and how COVID is causing a spike in utilizing drugs as coping mechanisms. To sign up for the forum, visit or visit the EGAF on Facebook.

The EGAF programming is designed to facilitate a relationship between students and counselors like Houghtaling. As Houghtaling says, “We want students to view us as someone who is accessible, before you’re an ominous creature that you have to go to because you’re in trouble.”

Approachability is key for Houghtaling.

He has received “tremendous support” for the EGAF programming from Andrew Nota, town manager for East Greenwich, as well as the Kent County Coalition, local police department, schools and parents.

For Houghtaling, the biggest challenge of the job is “the heartbreak to know there are people overdosing on opioids or kids feeling alienated and left out, so they’ve turned to drugs and alcohol. You think more about the people you don’t get to, rather than the ones you do. There are people out there who need support and help. Sometimes, a condition or a few decisions have gotten in the way. We’re trying to find ways to help them out a bit.”

paws, laws, teen


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here