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Giving Youth More Than a Seat at the Table

In 2017, several local coalitions working to reduce substance misuse among youth in Cecil County, Maryland, formed the Drug Free Cecil collaboration. Since then, Drug Free Cecil has hosted several Communities Talk activities, but the 2019 event was different: It was run by high school students.

SAMHSA encourages community-based organizations that coordinate Communities Talk activities to engage underage youth in playing key roles in reducing and preventing alcohol use and its consequences among their peers. In 2019, for example, youth designed, organized, and led two-thirds of all Communities Talk activities.

Communities Talk Resources for Youth Engagement

SAMHSA has resources to help community-based organizations encourage youth to play a larger role in planning and hosting Communities Talk activities.

Download SAMHSA’s guide to engaging youth in underage drinking prevention and other resources at: https://www.stopalcoholabuse.gov/communitiestalk/tips-resources/resources-for-youth.aspx.

This approach is one that Drug Free Cecil, as a recipient of one of SAMHSA’s Communities Talk planning stipends, embraced wholeheartedly in its 2019 activities.

"When we took a step back and looked at the Communities Talk events we had done in the past, we realized we had to allow youth to take the lead," said Virgil Boysaw Jr., Drug Free Cecil Coordinator, Cecil County Health Department. "If we want our youth to have a voice, we have to allow them not just to be 'at the table,' but to have a voice while they’re there."

To give youth that voice and support them in developing the skills necessary to lead Communities Talk activities, Drug Free Cecil looked to the newly formed Drug Free Cecil Youth Coalition (DFCYC).

Nurturing a Coalition of Youth Prevention Leaders

The DFCYC was officially founded at Drug Free Cecil’s annual three-day Cecil County Youth Leadership Summit in November 2018. There, a total of 60–70 students from each of Cecil County’s 6 public high schools honed their leadership skills, developed billboards and 30-second PSAs highlighting substance misuse issues, and committed to tackling these issues in their community once they got home.

"I know a lot of my classmates don't perceive substances like alcohol and marijuana and vaping as dangerous, addictive, or detrimental," said Kelsey Meis, one of the founding DFCYC members. "Seeing their fellow high schoolers lead the prevention movement opens people’s eyes to the fact that people are working on this. People care."

View the prevention PSAs developed by Cecil County youth leaders.

Once the youth organized as a coalition, Drug Free Cecil and one of its partners, Youth Empowerment Source (YES), rallied around them to offer guidance and mentorship. Since the DFCYC’s founding, members have been meeting monthly at the YES office to develop countywide prevention strategies that can be implemented at high schools through youth-led prevention clubs. There is a club in each of the county’s high schools, with more than 200 students participating.

As part of their guidance and mentorship, Drug Free Cecil and YES send DFCYC youth to capacity-building trainings, where they learn about prevention strategies and build skills to change norms. At the 2019 CADCA (Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America) National Forum, 9 DFCYC members honed their leadership skills; visited Capitol Hill in Washington, DC; and spoke with their legislators on prevention topics and issues in Cecil County. They also were trained to provide Over-the-Counter (OTC) Medication Safety Training. Energized upon their return from the forum, the students decided to plan a Communities Talk event.

Rallying Around Communities Talk

First, DFCYC received a proclamation from the Cecil County Council that recognized the week of May 12–18 as National Prevention Week. They then decided to host a countywide prevention rally and health fair for their Communities Talk event. Held on Saturday, May 11, 2019, the event took place at Cecil College’s Milburn Stone Theatre auditorium.

Partners in Prevention

Drug Free Cecil works with many partners. Below are several that helped with the 2019 Communities Talk event:

  • Youth Empowerment Source (YES) is a nonprofit agency dedicated to providing critical supports to children, youth, and families in Cecil County, MD. YES has sponsored the DFCYC since its beginning.
  • Cecil College let DFCYC use its Milburn Stone Theatre auditorium, free of charge.
  • In 2019, the DFCYC produced a second batch of PSAs. Drug Free Cecil has partnered with Comcast Spotlight to air the PSAs on local television stations.

DFCYC youth led the development of the rally, which began with several of them giving speeches in the college auditorium. They also debuted the six PSAs they had developed the previous fall, which tackled underage drinking, vaping, marijuana, opioid misuse, OTC drug misuse, and tobacco—and pointed viewers to resources within the website for the Cecil County Opioid Misuse Prevention Coalition, rewriteyourscript.org.

"Our focus is on all the substances because we’re trying to promote a prevention lifestyle," explained Boysaw. "We don’t want a ‘just say no’ message; we want a lifestyle message, where we try to change the norms."

Or, as Matthew Lynn, a former DFCYC member who has since graduated, put it, "Scare tactics do not work. So when we designed our PSAs, we wanted to keep a positive vibe to them to encourage other activities that don’t require alcohol, drugs, et cetera."

More than 200 people—including children, teens, adults, state representatives, and county government officials—viewed these PSAs at the youth rally.

Following the rally, DFCYC held a health fair in the Cecil College parking lot with health and wellness vendors and organizations including the Cecil County Health Department, Cecil County D.A.R.E., Upper Bay Counseling, Recovery Center of America, NorthBay Adventure Camp, and Cecil County Public Schools.

At one booth, Maryland Center for School Safety had attendees wear goggles that simulate intoxication and then attempt to walk in a straight line. Cecil County Public Schools, meanwhile, had attendees play "spin-the-wheel" at its Drug & Alcohol Prevention table to learn about alcohol abuse. The possible consequences on the wheel included liver damage, depression, and alcohol poisoning, among other negative repercussions.

Also at the health fair, DFCYC youth handed out drug deactivation bags that neutralize opioid medications prior to disposal.

"Residents have shared that they had leftover medicine and were thankful to use the bags," said Jackie Hartman, coordinator of special programs at the Cecil County Health Department. "They would have thrown the medicine out if they did not have the bags."

Maintaining the Momentum for Maximum Impact

The DFCYC sees no problem keeping the momentum going. The 2019 Communities Talk youth rally served as a catalyst for the DFCYC’s work to spread prevention messages throughout its community. Both locally and nationally, DFCYC has been recognized for its work:

  • In September 2019, the DFCYC did an OTC Medication Safety Training for more than 1,100 6th graders through a partnership with Johnson & Johnson and CADCA. For these efforts, they received the CADCA Dose of Prevention 2019 award.
  • In October 2019, DFCYC hosted a "trunk-or-treat" and health fair at Elkton High School to celebrate National Drug Take Back Day. Attendees were encouraged to bring unwanted and unused prescription medications, including opioids, and other drugs—and dispose of them in a judgment-free environment. At this event, DFCYC received an official Presidential Proclamation from the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s Deputy Director Kendel Ehrlich.
  • The following month, DFCYC received the "Honor Row" award at the November 3 Baltimore Ravens game. The award—a collaboration between the Baltimore Ravens, Governor’s Office on Service and Volunteerism, and M&T Bank—recognizes youth groups who provide outstanding service to their communities.

Data from 2019 shows that there is reason to believe these efforts—supported by the greater efforts of Drug Free Cecil and its community partners—are making a difference in Cecil County.

  • The percentage of high school youth reporting past 30-day use of tobacco decreased from 27.2% in 2013 to 5.5% in 2019.
  • The percentage of high school youth reporting past 30-day use of alcohol decreased from 41.1% in 2013 to 16.8% in 2019.
  • The percentage of high school youth reporting past 30-day use of prescription drugs decreased from 9.7% in 2013 to 4.3% in 2019.
  • The percentage of high school youth reporting past 30-day use of marijuana decreased from 26.5% in 2013 to 14.4% in 2019¹.

A Snapshot of Cecil County

In the spring and summer of 2020, the group was required to pivot in response to the COVID-19 pandemic: YES and Drug Free Cecil convened 20 DFCYC youth leaders representing each of the 6 high schools twice a week—virtually—for a leadership lesson and to hear a keynote speaker. In this time, they also:

  • Recorded 3 PSAs to be aired via Comcast Spotlight on local television stations;
  • Developed a billboard in Spanish highlighting opioid misuse;
  • Distributed bags of food and prescription drug disposal pouches to families in rural areas;
  • Expanded their social media outreach; and
  • Created a Drug Free Cecil blog.

For more information on how Drug Free Cecil has kept its youth engaged in prevention efforts during COVID-19, check out this blog post, written by Boysaw for CADCA.

The coalition has plans to continue meeting virtually, run a sticker shock campaign, and host another Drug Take Back Day.

Through all their efforts, one thing is clear: DFCYC youth have started a movement. They are showing Cecil County, and the nation, what is possible when youth take the reins on preventing substance misuse among their peers.

1 February 2019. Drug-Free Communities, Coalition Snapshot, Cecil County Drug-Free Community Coalition SP020531. Core Measure Survey administered in Cecil County Public High Schools and Middle Schools.

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