Living in southern West Virginia where cultural norms often take precedence over healthy decision making, it has always been evident that a greater community-wide effort needed to be born to counteract the destructive decisions of various members of the community where I live, namely youth.
Attending a very rural high school with less that 400 students, grades 7 – 12, taught me a lot about the negative social norms that sprout from a youth’s home life. It wasn’t uncommon to hear echoes in the halls about underage drinking, excessive tobacco use, and stories of bullying and harassment.
I began a SADD, Students Against Destructive Decisions, chapter in my high school when I was in the 8th grade to assist in the alleviation of destructive behaviors among my peers. Over the years, the chapter became very successful with very distinct, positive changes in the school’s environment and substance abuse among students.
During my senior year, in March 2005, I helped lead efforts to promote the same type of programming that I had started in my high school in areas throughout Mercer County, working closely with Community Connections, Inc., the Governor’s Highway Safety Program, and SADD National.
Through those efforts and others, SADD National selected me as a member of its national Student Leadership Council for two consecutive years, and during the second year, a member of its executive committee. This opportunity allowed me to work on a national level and to gain additional ideas to supplement the programs I was already working with on a local level.
In September 2006, I earned a grant to catalyze the efforts of the program throughout Mercer County – allowing for further programming, greater outreach to youth in additional locations, and to more fully develop the county-wide initiatives that I had already commenced. With this funding, I became a part-time employee and project director of the newly formed “Mercer County Safe and Drug Free Communities Program.” The grant funding also allowed for the purchase of various educational models and materials, purchase of the proven-effective curriculum, ALL-STARS, and travel experiences to learn more about opportunities to seize in Mercer County, WV.
One year later, I received a second grant for the program. With this pot of funds and through other foundation, business, and individual donors, the Mercer County Safe and Drug Free Communities program has taken a lead in the efforts to increase students’ knowledge of basic destructive behaviors such as tobacco use, underage drinking, bullying, violence, premarital sex, etc and their harmful consequences. The program also promotes character building, sense of self, goal setting, and the ability to clearly see the ways to achieve those goals.
Currently, over 20 locations are being served annually, and from September 2006 through August 2007, over 4,600 individuals directly received services provided by the program in Mercer County!
In addition to local efforts, I have invested time revitalizing SADD programs throughout the Mountain State. In coordination with the Governor’s Highway Safety Program, the Huntington Safe Traffic Operations Programs, and local community coalitions and schools, I have spearheaded initiatives to promote activism in current SADD chapters and begin new ones. In the past, SADD was present in West Virginia but was languishing; the program was run by a highway safety official in his spare time, focusing only on one region of the state. There were only a handful of schools involved. It was time for a major revitalization!
Now, West Virginia has well over 100 active SADD chapters – going from less than 50 only 4 years ago! Because of the increased interest and desire for new, innovative ideas, West Virginia SADD has now hosted two statewide conferences, has attended four SADD National Conferences in a row, and provides handbooks to chapters to show a detailed pathway to a chapter’s success.
From October 2005 through August 2006, I served as the chairman of West Virginia’s Partnership to Promote Community Wellbeing – Underage Drinking Prevention Workgroup, a statewide effort sponsored by the West Virginia Prevention Coalition (check). Leading this group, I worked to link efforts between state government, agencies, schools, community coalitions, and other organizations to promote a unified effort against underage drinking throughout West Virginia.
To keep a strong youth’s perspective on key issues of the various programs I work with, I also advise a youth advisory board (locally) and a student leadership council (state-wide). Both groups of teens meet regularly and discuss the problems in their respective communities and strive to think together as a group to decide the best solutions to overcome the obstacles.