Teen-agers focus on drug, alcohol prevention

March 27, 1994|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Sun Staff Writer

Isa Saunders stood in the middle of the room, kicking up his heels and braying like a donkey.

An unusual icebreaker, to be sure, but it seemed to be working for the 30 teen-agers attending a workshop Friday at the county's annual drug and alcohol prevention conference.

The three-day conference, "Empowering and Challenging Our Communities," was sponsored by the health department's Drug and Alcohol Abuse Prevention Program (DAAPP) and held at Anne Arundel Community College.

More than 200 people from 42 communities discussed issues such as cultural sensitivity, identifying community resources and developing activities for young people.

Mr. Saunders, a consultant specializing in community development, traveled from Newport News, Va., to run a workshop on "empowering youth."

Looking around the room, he decided to get his young crowd's attention with a quick story about two donkeys who become humans, then decide to return to their native state. An hour later, the students were still listening, and he knew he was making progress.

Mr. Saunders explained that too often professionals fail to involve teen-agers in the effort to prevent drug use.

"We really need to try a lot more to get young people involved. . . . They know what their problems are better than we do," he said.

To get the youths thinking about what changes they would make in their communities, Mr. Saunders turned off the lights in the room and asked them to close their eyes and create a "vision" of how things should be.

When most seemed unable to describe their visions, he passed out huge sheets of paper and brightly colored markers.

"Draw your visions then," he said. "Break into groups and draw a picture of what you want your community to be."

Although the drawings differed in format -- some elaborate scenes, others mostly symbols, still others completely abstract -- they all presented the same themes. The students wanted safe communities where peace and racial harmony reigned, and crime, poverty and disease were stamped out.

"It's a global village," Mr. Saunders told the students. "Maybe we all have more in common than we think."

The students, from six county high schools, then developed strategies to improve their schools and communities. Afterward, most said they thought the workshop was worthwhile.

"It's wonderful," said James Lee, 15, a sophomore at Southern High School. "We learned how to communicate to each other about our neighborhoods."

"I feel energetic to do positive things. I feel more confident that I can get things done," added Michelle Raley, 17, also from Southern.

Deena Goldsmith, community program specialist with DAAPP, said conference organizers wanted a program where people could learn how to solve community problems. Using a five-step process called "community certification," participants learned how to identify and fix problems in their neighborhoods.

The process, created by county employees, administrators and community activists during previous day-long drug prevention summits, earned the county a $50,000 grant from the federal Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. That money was used to put on last week's conference.

Frances B. Phillips, the county's health officer, said she hopes to duplicate the community certification plan throughout the county.

The program is unique in that it does not offer specific answers to reducing drug and alcohol abuse, but rather teaches participants how to create programs they think will work best in their neighborhoods, she said.

Joe Elliott didn't have the benefit of the program when he and his neighbors attacked the problems in Elizabeths Landing in Pasadena several years ago.

They were just concerned about the teen beer parties, destruction of property, car and boat thefts and burglaries. They set up a Neighborhood Watch and started community patrols.

"It took more than two years to really see results," said Mr. Elliott, whose group was honored at the conference. "But if you live there, you have to do it. The efforts do pay off."

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