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Drug abuse has energetic enemy in Lee County

May 5, 2013
Deb Comella with the Coalition for a Drug-Free Sou...
Deb Comella with the Coalition for a Drug-Free Sou...: Deb Comella with the Coalition for a Drug-Free Southwest Florida talks about Drug House Odyssey. Video by Amanda Inscore/
Deb Comella runs the Coalition for a Drug-Free Southwest Florida. / Amanda Inscore/

Coalition highlights

Drug House Odyssey: A three-day prevention event that reached 2,000 students, teachers, and citizens in 2012
Televised regional town hall meeting: “Alcohol and Kids: Preventing Underage Drinking,” produced in cooperation with WGCU Public Media, Fort Myers and WEDU, Tampa.
Red Ribbon Drug-Free Celebration: 16,000 children take part in six Drug Free Living contests
Daylong “mini-conferences”: Area professionals attend the coalition’s conferences on addictive disorders to learn skills to prevent and treat drug abuse.
Community needs assessment: Coordination of broad-based community work groups to identify needs, avoid duplication of services and develop logic models to provide a road map for treatment and prevention.
Leadership council: A “think tank” of community leaders identify local drug abuse/prevention needs and mobilize resources to meet these needs.
Learn more

Call the Lee County Coalition for a Drug-Free Southwest Florida at 931-9317. Online:


The watercolor floral print jacket, the loosely tousled hair, the handmade clay pendant around her neck, the sparkly eyed smile: All the first-glance visual cues about Deb Comella point to gentle, Summer of Love-inspired sweetness.

Comella herself says, “Hey, I’m a child of the ’60s – it’s who I am.”

And, yes, it is, but Comella also possesses a soldier’s ferocity, battle-forged persistence and a general’s talent for rallying an all-volunteer army.

Colleagues call Comella a torpedo — an accurate description for a woman whose single-minded aim is to wipe out drug abuse in the region.

“Deb’s incredibly focused and passionate about what she does,” says Marcie Kaveny, the volunteer coordinator for Fort Myers nonprofit Abuse Counseling and Treatment Center.

She has to be. As executive director of the Lee County Coalition for a Drug-Free Southwest Florida (and its sole full-time employee), the Wisconsin-born Comella, 58, runs the nonprofit from a borrowed second-floor, work-cluttered office that’s smaller than a respectable restaurant’s ladies’ room.

As grant-writer, event-planner, number-cruncher, public speaker and cheerleader-in-chief for her cause, Comella draws a $45,000 salary, considerably lower than many area nonprofit heads. Funding comes from the Florida Department of Children and Families, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office and Lee Memorial Health System. Southwest Florida Addiction Services, with which Comella works closely, donates the office space.

“We’re happy to support Deb,” says Southwest Florida Addiction Services Executive Director Kevin Lewis. “There aren’t a whole lot of Debs in the world. Besides being a devout Packers fan,” he says with a chuckle, “she’s not one of those plodding, strategy-oriented people. She works well with all sectors — doctors, moms, neighborhood associations. She doesn’t limit herself to any one strategy. And she’s not one of those people whose ego enters the room a couple of minutes ahead of her.”

Perhaps the most visible thing the coalition does is run the harrowing annual Drug House Odyssey — a haunted house/live theater hybrid designed to keep kids from becoming sad statistics. Every year, Comella rallies a pack of student actors plus law enforcement, emergency medical and legal professionals — 29 community organizations in all — to depict the potential consequences of fatally bad choices for an audience of a few thousand kids, teachers and others.

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The results speak for themselves :

“I just want to say thank you for everything that you did. I learned so much!” wrote Gateway Elementary School fifth-grader Emma Brown after attending a performance. “Sure, you guys creeped me out, but at least I know what to do in those types of situations now.”

“The scenes with the car crash were scary and sad,” wrote classmate Jack Welch. “I now never want to drink and drive or take drugs. It’s just sad to think about what can happen. Thank you again.”

And in numbers — in Lee County, according to last year’s Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey:

Alcohol use declined from 27.1 percent in 2010 to 25.5 percent in 2012.

Cigarette use dropped from 9.5 percent in 2010 to 7.6 percent in 2012.

Use of hard drugs, steroids, and club drugs dropped to less than 2 percent.

Yet encouraging as those numbers are, Comella says they’re just one step.

“Our kids’ children still have some serious drug-abuse issues,” she says. Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance by Lee County youth, with many kids starting as early as 10.

“In many homes, all they have to do is open the refrigerator door,” she says. “So we have to get to the parents and grandparents, too.”

And while that may not be as straightforward as reaching kids, Comella’s optimistic.

“One of the incredible things about Lee County — one of the reasons I really love it — is that we really care about our kids.”

That’s true of Comella, too, whose 24-year-old daughter works as a marketing professional in Boston.

“Why am I passionate about this work? It’s simple — I’m simple,” she says with a laugh. “I’m a mom. Moms care about kids. Moms want kids safe.”

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