Jul 28, 2014
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Service learning as a tool for prevention?

Service learning as a tool for prevention?
We recently facilitated a Ross Valley Community Meeting around underage youth alcohol and drug use, and the experience was truly eye-opening. Many community members were in attendance, and data was shared from a Healthy Kids Survey (here is a  link to the site) that is administered to students throughout the state of California. Apparently, although Marin County consistently ranks in the top 5% in areas such as self-reported health, healthy air and physical activity, the county ranks in the bottom 25% in terms of excessive or binge drinking. Further analysis of the report shows that Marin County is one of the highest for adolescent drinking rates as well.

At the Community Meeting, presenters shared the Healthy Kids data and a student/teacher panel were present to answer questions. Many of the questions hit along the lines of why this problem was occurring: what is the reason so many youth begin to drink and use drugs at such an early age? Many answers were given: lack of communication with parents, no respect for the law, and several root factors were presented such as easy social access, insufficient enforcement of laws and inappropriate promotion of use. However, as the night went on it was obvious many people in attendance (including myself) wanted to start discussing solutions that would solve the problem. Given that the meeting was created with the intention of raising awareness, we continued to facilitate to ensure everyone was able to understand the issue as clearly as possible, knowing that a strategy of solutions was the next step.

At several moments during the meeting there was acknowledgement that a primary motive, or the reason for youth onset of drinking and using, was still hard to come by. As I researched effects of alcohol and drugs on the teen brain ( here is a website for specific effects of Marijuana on the developing brain), I realized that youth awareness education is paramount to helping tweens and teens understand the issue before it is too late. Looking deeper at the data; into “where the river begins” so to speak, I began to see areas where youth begin to feel disconnected from their peers and environment, and then potentially trend towards alcohol and drugs as a way to “fill in” these gaps. These areas are outlined in the Resilience Indicators and Connectedness portion of the survey. Students were asked a series of questions to find out if they had Caring Adult Relationships, High Expectations, or Meaningful Participation in both School and Community Environments. The resulting aggregate data shows “High, Medium and Low” connection levels to each. I was not surprised to find that as students got older (and alcohol and drug use levels went up), levels for each resilience indicator went down, especially in regards to Meaningful Participation in both School and Community. Could it be that along with the string of stresses associated with being a youth, that youth were drinking and using drugs because they were…bored?

This data dive resonated with my experience as a youth: a student who maintained good grades throughout high school, was a member of football and track teams, honor society and student council yet still occasionally drank and smoked marijuana. I also had married parents who had stable incomes. My data set would have driven experts nuts- why does this kid use? The answer may have been with the environment around me: social influence of others using, a stress-and-forward driven culture of getting into college, and the altogether lack of meaningful connection to my environment. But what does lack of meaningful participation really mean?

As we continue the process of community meeting facilitation, school and youth engagement, I am willing to bet that by including youth in the process of creating meaningful service projects in their community; ultimately connecting what “School” and “Community” actually are; they will begin to feel more connected to their environments for a longer period of time. Will this “service learning” increase the resilience indicators associated with underage alcohol and drug use, thus lowering adolescent drinking and drug use rates? Only time; and well-executed strategies; will tell.

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