2017-10-19 / News

Communities converge to battle student substance use

By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer

SOUTHERN MAINE – Local volunteers will participate in a national campaign next week to address substance use among young adults and encourage prevention at an early age.

The Biddeford-Saco Rotary Club will bring the Red Ribbon Campaign to Biddeford, Saco and Old Orchard Beach schools for the third year in a row and to elementary age students for the first time. The Red Ribbon Campaign, which will run locally from Monday Oct. 23 to Tuesday, Oct. 31, was started in 1985 by the National Family Partnership in response to the murder of Drug Enforcement Agency member Enrique Camarena in Mexico. His 1985 death sparked communities in the U.S. to wear red ribbons as a symbol of the violence caused by the war on drugs.

Karen Chasse, co-chairman of the Red Ribbon Committee of Biddeford-Saco Rotary Club, helped form the group with Jim Godbout three years ago. She said the club saw substance use as a problem in the community and one everyone ended up paying for.

“We ultimately decided our mission was to encourage healthy and thriving behavior without the influence of illegal drugs and other misused substances,” Chasse said.

This year Ryan Esbjerg of Flex Your Face, a Portland based organization focused on encouraging positivity among children, will hold an assembly at the high schools to talk about finding something in each day to smile about. Representatives from the Drug Enforcement Agency will also bring canine units to talk about substance use prevention. The emphasis with younger students will focus on developing healthy habits that they enjoy.

“If kids get involved in something they’re passionate about they’re less likely to be derailed by drugs,” Chasse said. “If you’re finding those good, positive moments you tend to be more positive and not turn to drugs and alcohol.”

Godbout said he wanted to form the Red Ribbon Committee because he’d seen too many people he knew fall victim to substance use. He said he watched children he coached in youth sports die in their early 20s and 30s from addiction.

“I firmly believe we need a culture change,” Godbout said. “Substances are used and accepted on such a wide basis. Pain management is a big factor in the opioid crisis and we haven’t taught people how to do pain management properly. If you’re going to use substances there is a time and place.”

The Rotary Club spent about $700 on three pairs of drunk-simulation goggles, one each for Thornton Academy, Biddeford and Old Orchard Beach High Schools. There will also be a T-shirt design competition, the winner of which last year received a $500 cash prize. All three schools will also be able to compete in a national photo contest for a grand prize of $1,000 and an iPad.

“We have the money to give back to make this happen thanks to large donations and a lot of different local businesses,” Chasse said. “Promoting healthy behavior will lead kids down the right path.”

The Rotary Club itself doesn’t get involved in school activities but helps departments with funding and education resources.

“It’s been a focus of mine to make sure we are able to maintain the education process and create success stories of students struggling with substance use,” Godbout said.

The Rotary Club partners with Coastal Healthy Communities Coalition to provide information to school systems. The coalition is part of the University of New England and promotes healthy lifestyles throughout York County. Its Project Alliance advisory board was formed three years ago to address youth substance use in York County. The program’s new director, Laura Overton, took over the position in September and will work in the Biddeford Intermediate School to help students better understand the health implications of substance use.

“We use a module of having kids identify their values and goals as reasons to stay drug free,” Overton said. “It’s really important to teach kids there are risk factors they can’t change, such as their family’s behavior. We want to make sure people understand this is a health issue.”

Overton said heart disease is an example used with young students to demonstrate how family history can play a role, but changes in behavior can mitigate risk factors. She said often students feel pressured into using substances because it’s perceived as normal. She wants to send children the message that there are other outlets for them.

“They’re not alone if they don’t want to be using,” Overton said. “Lots of student groups, athletes and kids their own age are not using. What they see in the media or hear in their music might not be the norm. We’re not saying drugs are bad, those messages don’t work. One effective strategy is having them be as open as they want. We know kids are seeing it in homes and some data shows kids in intermediate school are using substances.”

Marijuana legalization has been a challenge for Chasse and other rotary club members. She said children receive different messages depending on who their parents are and navigating those conversations can be difficult. The rotary club will continue to focus on providing resources for schools to help students and parents make decisions around what’s right for each student.

“We want to be sensitive to each family,” Chasse said. “We’re not going to change everybody. But if we help one kid that’s more than nothing.”

Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

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