It’s 7:45 on a Thursday morning. Some 50 people are gathered in a room at the Hopewell Township municipal building to hear a presentation by Steve Olsen about the Traumatic Loss Coalition of Mercer County.
The occasion is a meeting of the Hopewell Valley Municipal Alliance, an extraordinary body whose members include mayors, town council and committee members (past and present), school board members, school administrators, pastors, rabbis, town officials, police chiefs, pediatricians and mental health counselors, fire and emergency medical personnel, wellness practitioners, nonprofit directors and many more.
Introducing Olsen is Heidi Kahme, who has been the alliance’s coordinator for 13 years. It’s because of Kahme that many of these people are in the room.
The Governor’s Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse mandates that the alliance be a community-based anti-drug coalition promoting healthy and safe communities. Thanks to Kahme’s tireless efforts, Hopewell Valley’s alliance does that and much more. On June 12, the Mercer Council on Alcoholism will honor Kahme and several others at its annual Excellence in Prevention Awards breakfast.
Christine Abrahams has worked closely with Kahme for 11 years now. She is the supervisor of K-12 counseling services for the Hopewell Valley school district.
“When I first was introduced to Heidi, she was introduced as someone I had to meet because she makes things happen,” Abrahams says. “She knows everybody in the community. If you say you have an idea and you share it with her, she says, ‘Let’s do it! I know just who to talk to.’”
Nancy King, president of the Timberlane Middle School PTO, marvels at everything Kahme has accomplished. “She has a wonderful way about her that enables open discussion and free flowing of ideas,” King says. “I don’t think people realize how much she gets done, how she brings all the leaders together on a regular basis and gets them all to show up. You have to be making a difference for those people to show up. Those meetings are packed. It’s pretty amazing what she can do.”
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The alliance has five meetings a year, each one featuring a presentation like the one Olsen gave. But meetings are just part of what Kahme oversees. The HVMA sponsors or facilitates more than 20 programs in Hopewell Valley, working with the school district, Hopewell Township, the boroughs of Pennington and Hopewell and other partners to fulfill its mission through education and outreach.
“young people in our community have struggled,” Kahme says. “I’m grateful that our community is willing to roll up our sleeves and get the work done.”
Programs like Parents Who Host Lose the Most, which is designed to educate parents about the risks of permitting underaged drinking at their homes, hit at the heart of the alliance’s anti-drug message. On June 4, Valley youth will take part in Project Sticker Shock, distributing shelf tags at the Super Buy-Rite liquor store on the Pennington Circle warning of the legal penalties for adults who purchase alcohol on behalf of underaged drinkers.
Some alliance initiatives, like this month’s Come Outside and Play (see Nature in the Valley), Hopewell Valley Night Off or the Career Lunch and Learn program promote well being in a holistic sense. Programs like the Hopewell Valley Parenting Conference and many others encompass prevention and well being.
Working with volunteers and a modest budget, Kahme strives to keep established programs going while adding new ones whenever possible or when a new threat—like the opioid epidemic or legalization of marijuana—appears on the doorstep.
One example of the latter is the March symposium Kahme arranged on e-cigarettes, for which she invited policy expert Kevin Schroth and other panelists to discuss the dangers and myths surrounding vaping and Juuling and other electronic delivery methods for nicotine. In addition to the symposium, which was open to the public, Kahme also arranged for Schroth to speak at Hopewell Valley schools.
This was all in response not only to the latest news and reports from teen health and wellness advocates nationwide, but also to discussions Kahme had had with school officials, who were seeing the impact that e-cigarettes were having on campus.
“We started this conversation back in September out of just sheer need to educate the community,” Kahme says. “We really felt like we couldn’t just push it aside any longer.”
In April 2018, Kahme arranged a forum she called, “The Opioid Crisis: Is It Here?” which was held at the high school. Panelists offered firsthand accounts of living with addiction or living with those who were addicted. All of them had Hopewell Valley ties.
“We could have had members of the Trenton, Ewing, Lawrence communities come to our communities and talk about it, but I knew that then people could say, ‘That’s not us, that’s not us,’” she says. “It took us a while, but we had the courage to reach out to Hopewell community members who were willing to share their stories.”
Kahme saw that as a huge stepping stone for an area that has sometimes had trouble facing its flaws. “We were able to admit that we’ve got a problem and that young people in our community have struggled,” Kahme says. “I’m grateful that our community is willing to roll up our sleeves and get the work done.”
Larger initiatives like the Hopewell Valley Parenting Conference take Kahme and a dedicated subcommittee a whole year to plan. The first one, held in 2017, attracting parents from throughout the Valley with workshops on topics ranging from cyberbullying to teen sexual health to college admissions. There was a second conference in 2018, and a 2020 conference is in the works.
Abrahams tells a story that illustrates one of the ways that Kahme brings people and ideas together. Joel Hammon, an HVMA member and co-founder of the Princeton Learning Cooperative, told Kahme he wanted to bring a speaker to Mercer County—one of the authors of the book The Self-Driven Child—but he didn’t have any funding.
He asked Kahme if she thought she had any funds to use to bring the speaker in. And she did—as the keynote speaker for the next parenting conference.
“So she solved an issue for Joel, but it wasn’t just his issue,” Abrahams says. “She solved the issue for the entire county. And just Heidi getting all the people involved to create this conference in the first place—that’s something the district couldn’t do on its own.”
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In June 1994, before Kahme was involved, the municipal alliance coordinated with the school district to have 853 students in grades 7–12 take the Rocky Mountain Science Institute survey on drug and alcohol use.
The results, reported a year later, showed among other things, that 48 percent of the Class of 1994 had used drugs or gotten drunk in the 30 days prior to taking the survey. Fourteen percent of seniors had had alcohol at least 10 times in that span of time, and 10 percent had used marijuana in the same period.
“If Heidi were putting in only the hours she was paid to do, she would never get done all the things that she does,” King says.
The numbers surpassed nationwide averages by more than 10 percent, shocking three communities where the prevailing thought might have been “it can’t happen here.”
The municipal alliance was something of a quasi-government operation at the time, part of a statewide program formed by the Governor’s Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse. After the survey results were reported, community leaders tabbed Sheryl Stone to lead the Hopewell Valley Municipal Alliance. Under Stone’s leadership, the alliance developed a community partnership called Healthy Communities, Healthy Youth, which has as its basis something called the Developmental Assets Framework.
Dave Thomas, then the superintendent of the Hopewell Valley Regional School District, had heard about the Developmental Assets at a superintendents’ roundtable meeting. The initiative was created by a Minnesota-based organization called The Search Institute.
The Search Institute’s research had found that young people, regardless of location or socioeconomic status, did better when they have a foundation of 40 key developmental strengths in their lives. Kids who have greater numbers of these assets have been found to be more likely to thrive, less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors, and more likely to be resilient in the face of challenges.
“That’s when the table started to grow, and the business community became involved, and school administration and the police. It became the goal of the community to really take a deep dive and make sure all aspects of our community knew about the developmental asset model,” Kahme says.
Kahme was the president of the PTO at Timberlane Middle School in 2005 when Stone told her she was looking for a successor. “She said, ‘You know, Heidi, it’s been 10 years since my kids graduated from the school system. I really think it’s time for me to pass the baton,’” Kahme recalls. She shadowed Stone for the better part of a year and took over in 2006. She has been doing it ever since.
In all those years, the HVMA has programmed or sponsored thousands of events, from Project Post-Prom and 8th Grade Transition Day to Youth Mental Health First Aid and Parent Circle to Project Medicine Drop. Kahme and her subcommittees organize annual events like the Pennington 5K fundraiser and Teen Wellness Day.
And if she hears about a new trend or a new danger, she is quickly on the phone figuring out how to set up a special event to get the word out. “What’s so rewarding about this is that your ideas are actually being implemented,” she says. “Knowing that even your initiation of a conversation is changing things, it’s pretty powerful.”
But Kahme says if there is one things she is most proud of, it’s building up to today’s high levels of membership and engagement. When she started, there were she estimates around 20 members. Today there are 109.
“People say to me, ‘Heidi, I think more business gets done after your meetings than during them.’ And I say, ‘That’s awesome,’” she says. “Obviously there is a value to these meetings if people keep coming and it gets people to pick up the phone and communicate.”
Technically, coordinator is a part-time job, with one third of the $27,000 budget going to Kahme’s compensation—and even then, she has to raise funds to bolster GCADA’s grant, which is $18,000.
Kahme estimates that she works 20 hours a week. That would work out to less than $9 an hour, and those who know Kahme and work with her say she works well more than 20 hours a week.
“We’re really fortunate that she’s putting in all those hours,” King says. “If she were putting in only the hours she was paid to do, she would never get done all the things that she does. We are lucky because we don’t pay her enough and even if we did pay her enough, the impact of her work is so important to this community that we need to invest in this.”
Abrahams agrees. “She works tirelessly and she makes nothing, the county pays her nothing, she’s a part-time employee, but I tell you she works more than full time, she deserves to have a full-time job doing this because she is that valuable.”
Kahme admits that she is frustrated by the situation and says other coordinators in the state feel the same way. Not only because of the lack of compensation—but also because of the message it seems to send, that the work they are doing to help promote healthy communities and healthy youth is not valued the same way that other work is where people are paid full-time wages to carry it out.
But she also stresses that she does get great fulfillment from her role. “I absolutely love the work. I really feel that it’s important. It’s interesting. I’m in a perfect position to be helping people and connecting with people. Why would I not want to do it. I hear myself saying a lot that I’m the kind of person who if there’s a problem, I need to find a solution. That’s just who I am.”
Kahme was born in Coral Gables, Florida. When she was 5, her father, who worked for American Express, got transferred to the Northeast, and the family eventually settled in West Windsor.
She went to West Windsor-Plainsboro (South) High School from grades 7–11 before transferring to The Hun School for her senior year, then attending Rollins College to study English. She met Flushing-born husband Mike, now the managing partner of the law firm Hill Wallack, in Princeton.
When they met, she was in the hotel business, working at the recently opened Hyatt Regency in Carnegie Center. She started as a front desk staffer, making $5 an hour. She moved into management fairly quickly, and then was offered a job at the Nassau Inn in Princeton as a senior sales manager. She and Mike were living in Plainsboro when they got married, and in March 1996 moved to Hopewell to start their family.
After daughter Rebecca, now 28, was born, Kahme made the agonizing decision so many mothers make, to put her career on hold to raise her children.
“The day I gave my resignation, the director of marketing also gave his resignation,” she says. “The general manager said, ‘The job is yours,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my God’ — the goal I had set myself of being director of sales and marketing was right there. But I didn’t want to work any more. I had an 18-month-old at and I was ready to make a career change as a full-time mom. That was probably one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make.”
The Kahmes also have daughter Samantha, now 25. Both children were educated in the Hopewell Valley Regional School District.
At its June 12 breakfast The Mercer Council on Alcoholism and Drug Addiction will honor Kahme as well as Ann DeGennaro, student assistance counselor at Lawrence Township High School; Carol Chamberlain, Lawrence Township health officer and coordinator for the Lawrence Municipal Drug Alliance; and the Mercer County Police Chiefs Association.