"Never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

"Never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

— Margaret Mead, anthropologist

That day back in the fall of 1980, Judy Cushing was plenty concerned. A man was said to be lurking near Medford's Hoover Elementary School, the school her children attended, and was trying to pass off LSD-laced stickers to the kids.

Changing the world was not on her mind, but protecting her children was.

As with many Oregon towns at the time, Medford was not without its share of illicit drugs.

But activity so near a school was alarming. Cushing and fellow parent Judy Barr primed themselves for action. Little did they know their efforts would affect the lives of countless Oregonians for years to come. Later they would say they were "just trying to do the right thing."

The first thing they did was ask the Jackson County Mental Health Department for a crash course in drug awareness.

One night a week for a month, the parents sat through drug classes. Bongs, roach clips and other drug paraphernalia came to class courtesy of the department's stash of confiscated items.

"We were a bit speechless about what was going on under our eyes and didn't know it," Cushing says. "It was a real wake-up call."

The more they learned, the more concerned they became. It was a concern they wanted to share.

From stories in Time Magazine and on the "60 Minutes" TV show, they learned about New Jersey police detective David Toma, who was giving talks at schools around the country on the dangers of drug use. Toma's own life inspired the television dramas "Toma" and "Baretta." He was the one, they all agreed, to engage the Medford community.

Toma was in high demand. It took nearly a year to negotiate his talks in Medford, secure local support and funding, and convince the school administration that Medford students, all 7,500 of them in grades six through 12, should be released from classes and transported to the Hedrick Middle School gym for presentations, along with an evening talk for parents.

As Toma's talks drew near, Rick Slaven, who was then Medford's assistant school superintendent, asked the parents what they were going to do after Toma left.

"We looked at each other, sat down and wrote up a plan," Cushing says.

Their plan centered on bringing community leaders together to tackle drug use in children. They wanted the key decision-makers from schools, hospitals, the police and justice departments, chamber of commerce, media, human services and elsewhere. And they wanted them to commit to involvement through monthly meetings.

How would they get that commitment?

"Positive peer pressure," Cushing says. "As soon as we got one person to say yes, we'd tell others."

Soon, it became very important to be involved.

The result was SODA, Southern Oregon Drug Awareness, a group that operated for the next 25 years, and became so instrumental in confronting the effects of substance abuse that it received a Point of Light award from President George H.W. Bush.

But that was in the future. Just one month after SODA's first meeting in September of 1981, the sense of urgency they hoped to create hit hard. Toma's talks to students and parents thrust the extent of local substance abuse into the open. Immediately following his talks, the halls of Hedrick School overflowed with students wanting to meet him.

"It was nearly a mob scene," Cushing says. "But they weren't asking for his autograph. They were asking for help."

Many students were concerned for themselves, a sibling, a parent or a friend who had a drug problem.

"People were struggling. We needed to prevent problems before they happened," Cushing says.

SODA became a vehicle for action that included adopting an evidence-based drug prevention curriculum for Jackson County schools, training teachers and pushing for local ordinances around the sale of illegal drugs near schools.

Cushing's role in helping develop a model for community involvement enabled her to be part of Oregon Together, a pilot project conducted through the Oregon Office of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs and the University of Washington. The goal was to bring local leaders together to look at factors that put kids at risk for drug use and to mobilize for action.

"Seventy-four communities joined in with some exciting results," Cushing says. She cites the community that held a rodeo where beer was sold only in bucket-sized containers. "This was an area with high drinking rates among teens," she says. The people involved successfully worked with the rodeo board to reduce container sizes.

In another community, the local group convinced a college to remove alcohol ads from scoreboards and to limit advertising at tailgate parties. Others started nighttime basketball programs for street youth and after-school programs for children of working parents.

Cushing's work brought accolades, awards and appointments from presidents and federal leaders, including to the White House Advisory Commission on Drug Free Communities, the Drug Enforcement Administration's National Advisory Board, the National Advisory Council of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Executive Board of the National Alliance for the Prevention of Suicide, the Governor's Alcohol & Drug Policy Commission, and the Oregon Attorney General's Task Force to Prevent Underage Drinking.

In 1993, the Medford SODA model influenced formation of the Oregon Partnership, now called Lines for Life.

Cushing retired in early 2014 after 20 years as chief executive officer. She continues to consult with the organization in Portland while focusing on advocacy work related to suicide and substance abuse.

"I really felt SODA gave me a gift by seeing what community leaders can do when they collectively focus on an issue," Cushing says. "Businesses, schools, parents and community leaders became passionate about making Medford and the surrounding communities safer, and they pushed for prevention education and helping services for kids. They were the change agents, and it worked."

In commenting on her work, Congressman Greg Walden said Cushing "has been a wealth of knowledge, advice and counsel for many years. Her service has turned around countless lives in our communities, our state and our nation."

Barr, Cushing's fellow concerned parent of the early '80s and now retired both from professional work at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center and volunteer work with CASA, echoes Walden's praise.

"Judy is a terrific community organizer. She leaves no stone unturned until she gets to the bottom of an issue. Our community has truly benefited from her talents."

Mead was correct. A small group of concerned citizens can change the world.

Sheri Clostermann Anderson is a freelance writer living in Portland. She can be reached at shericand@comcast.net.