WHITINGHAM — Students well-versed in the harmful effects of alcohol, drugs and tobacco were applauded by legislators in Montpelier.
"They were so psyched," said Cindy Hayford, advisor for the Twin Valley High School Pride group and director of the Deerfield Valley Community Partnership.
State representatives Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington, and Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, introduced members of Pride before the entire House of Representatives stood and clapped in support of their efforts.
"I think that was really powerful for the kids," Hayford said, adding that a scientist gave a presentation on marijuana which provided information the students were "really excited" to bring back to Twin Valley. "It was a great day."
Pride was given the 2016 Prevention Champion Award, which is sponsored by a statewide group called Prevention Works! VT. That group puts its efforts into building a unified voice for substance abuse prevention, according to a press release, and its award was intended to recognize Twin Valley students' commitment to preventing drug and alcohol use and other risky behaviors.
Pride has been around for 10 years. Participants educate not only their peers but have presented workshops at state and national events. The group has created social norms campaigns, started up substance-free activities, created community-wide awareness campaigns, attended conferences, participated in trainings and sponsored activities aimed at increasing awareness. But most important, said Hayford, was their service as "amazing" role models.
Half of the students had never been to the Statehouse and they were all given a tour. Hayford said she thought they were all really proud. Not all 13 members were able to go but they all received individual awards for their efforts.
"They do this work and they don't get recognized enough," she said of the group made up of Morgan Wheeler, Logan Park, Nick Nilsen, Jack Lyddy, Kassidy Walkowiak, Caitlin Hunt, Willie Queenie, Grace Russell, Justin Hicks, Hailey Howe, Kendell Howe, Olivia Genella and Chase Speigel.
Pride recently finished Sticker Shock, an activity that saw students going into local stores and pizza places before Super Bowl Sunday, slapping stickers on six packs and pizza boxes. The effort is aimed at preventing businesses from providing alcohol and tobacco to minors.
"Our businesses are so supportive of the activities that the Pride group does. It's really great," said Hayford. "They allow us to come in and put in the stickers and do the signs. We weren't sure if they'd go for signs. But they're as dedicated as we are. They don't want to be selling to minors."
Businesses in the valley have "a great compliance rate," she added, saying they are rarely cited for not carding or for selling to minors.
During the fall, Pride offered a full week of red ribbon activities to build awareness of underage drinking. The group has launched similar campaigns when prom and graduation were near.
Last year, they hosted Wellness Day and it went so well that school administrators want them to do it again sometime this spring. They chose a theme, booked a speaker and set up workshops where half of a school day was spent learning and talking about a particular issue.
"That's a big undertaking," Hayford said. "Last year, it was incredible. Not only the kids but the faculty too said, 'This is something we should do every year.'"
Stress was picked as the theme after members of the group had seen a study showing an alarming rate of kids had felt sad or hopeless. A significant amount had even gone so far as making a suicide plan. Hayford said students in Pride then "dug deeper" and began looking at a possible underlying issue: mental health.
Workshops were organized around coping with stress and anxiety. A meeting early in the day saw kids identifying things that stress them out. They wrote those items down then thought about them as they learned ways to reduce stress such as time management, yoga, positive mindset exercises and journaling.
DVCP sponsors Pride and held various community meetings to address addiction this year.
"Our community, like every other, is dealing with addiction issues," said Hayford. "Our goal this year has been to educate people on addiction and become a community that is supportive of recovery."
While valley residents are quick to fundraise to feed families, Hayford finds addiction has a certain stigma attached to it. Identifying addiction as a disease is part of her group's goal. She sees similar efforts occurring statewide and nationally.
Over the last 20 years since DVCP was established, Hayford said she has seen a consistent drop in alcohol use, especially in the underage department. But one of her biggest concerns now is the push to legalize recreational marijuana. She worries about kids starting young when their brains are still developing and other negative consequences.
"I believe the kind of talk with decriminalization and medical and recreational marijuana sends the message to kids that it's harmless," said Hayford, calling to mind a state where recreational marijuana was legalized. "We just heard last week that Colorado is number one in marijuana use for adult and youth. When it's commonplace like that, people think it's harmless."
Contact Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.