Alison Eriksen has dedicated her life to bettering the Oceanside home she grew up in, as well as for the people who live within it.
There are many ways it can be done — and Eriksen has been involved with many of them — but now she’s making a difference as project coordinator for Oceanside SAFE Coalition, in response to overdose and suicide deaths.
And it’s those efforts that now earn her recognition as the Oceanside/Island Park Person of the Year.
Eriksen has spent 15 years working and volunteering in the human services field. She is a licensed social worker by trade, earning her master’s degree from Adelphi University in 2013.
Her clinical background serves those living with severe mental illness, substance abuse disorders, chronic homelessness, and sick children at home. Even when she was a student at Oceanside High School in the early 2000s, Eriksen had an interest in human behavior, psychology, and in helping others.
By learning more about policy and bringing social work practice to communities, Eriksen saw the kind of difference she could make on a community level.
She was involved in the creation of the Makeshift Movement, joining other Oceanside High graduates in 2015 to create safe spaces that would allow people to openly talk about mental health, suicide and substance abuse.
“We wanted to make sure that we were encouraging conversation and action from our community, " Eriksen said. “Let's get to work and let's stop saying ‘thoughts and prayers.’”
Which, of course, is a common response when people hear news about someone dying — something Eriksen and her high school alum were hearing too much about what are otherwise stigmatized topics like overdose and suicide.
The Makeshift Movement spearheaded community events and awareness efforts such as education panels, resource fairs, media campaigns, and even a community art project.
It was through this Eriksen was introduced to Oceanside SAFE — short for “substance abuse-free environment” — that was led by Oceanside High health teacher Sara Dowler. The coalition’s mission is to help prevent and reduce alcohol and drug use among young people by expand prevention education, hosting workshops, and providing community prevention events, evidence-based prevention programming, and awareness campaigns.
The Makeshift Movement dissolved as members dispersed to different communities, but Oceanside SAFE has carried on. In fact, the coalition was awarded a federal grant in 2019 that was enough to keep it operating at least into next year.
And then it was time for Eriksen to truly take charge, with Dowler’s blessing, leading day-to-day operations at Oceanside SAFE.
“Ali’s the best,” said Dan Rinaldi, the coalition’s vice president and a community psychologist. “She really is a powerhouse and a person who believes that we can make a positive impact. I think a lot of people can feel helpless, but Ali just rolls up her sleeves, gets to work, and makes it happen.
“Ali really knows how to get down to business and make things happen as well as everybody on our board.”
Frances Gallin, who raised her kids in Oceanside, joined the coalition because she wanted to give back to the community by ensuring it remained a safe environment for young people.
“Ali has been a great asset to the coalition,” Gallin said. “Ali has been a great adviser, a mentor, and a trusted adult youth can rely on. She is very receptive and supportive to any suggestions the coalition members make, and has always been proactive in finding new ways to communicate with the school district, youth, local government, Oceanside Library, National Guard, and the Oceanside community.”
Just this year, Ericksen introduced several new programs like Teen Intervene, an alternative to school suspension when a student is caught vaping.
Active Parenting is a support group for parents of middle and high school students. Coastal Cleanup — partnered with Oceanside Warriors, Kiwanis and youth volunteers — clean up local areas and collect data on substance findings during the cleanup.
And then there is the alcohol training awareness program, which provides off-premise workshops to help limit the accessibility of alcohol to underage would-be drinkers at retail stores.
Even when she was fresh out of high school, Eriksen remained busy. She raised funds for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and participated in the annual Out of the Darkness Community and Overnight walks.
She was the annual team leader for the South Shore Association for Independent Living's involvement in NAMIwalks, the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses 5K run to bring awareness to mental health services and resources. When she saw a window of opportunity to dive in deeper and work more closely with communities, Ericksen jumped at the chance to do something she loved every single day.
“This will always be something that I'm thinking about in the middle of the night and (when) getting ready in the morning,” she said. “It'll never ever feel like a job. I want to give back to my community. The fact that this is something I can call a job at the end of the day is unbelievable.”
Eriksen remains devoted to her mission, gaining even more motivation after becoming a mother — a 4-year-old daughter named Mackenzie she shares with husband, Mark. The two met in a band — Permission to Launch — with Eriksen on vocals, and her husband on both drums and guitar.
The two have traveled across Long Island over the past decade, performing at local venues and businesses.
What Eriksen especially loves about community work, however, is being able to involve her family, which will be growing in a few months as she expects to introduce her baby boy to the world by spring.
“I love to bring my daughter when we're planting flowers for overdose awareness month, and she knows what mommy does,” Eriksen said. “My husband's there playing guitar. And, at the end of the day, nothing makes me happier than being at home with my family.”
Eriksen did spend a little time living in the city, but returned to Oceanside when it came time to raise a family.
“Everybody has that same devotion to Oceanside,” she said “Everybody is dedicated to making it better and giving back and coming together for a bigger purpose.
“I want the community that my child grows up in to be a safe community that is as prepared as possible to deal with youth substance prevention. I think that's something that every parent wants, and it's going to take all of us to get it done. I really truly believe that.”