Youth peer group is tackling tough issues | SierraSun.com

Youth peer group is tackling tough issues

Christine Stanley
Sierra Sun

Jessica, Joanna and Vanessa are only in their second year of high school, but already they are worried for their friends and peers who have been caught up in a youth culture of drugs and alcohol.

“I had a friend who was getting high everyday. He was changing a lot and he wasn’t the same person,” said Jessica Luna, 15. “I thought that if I could get some information, I could help him out.”

It was for that reason and a slew of others that Luna and eight other teens from North Tahoe High School decided to participate in a new program called the Youth Focus Group.

Funded by a new $17,000 grant from the Placer County Strengths and Assets Promotion, a program of Health and Human Services, and led by North Tahoe Middle School counselor Dannielle Adler, the Youth Focus Group allows high school students to meet in small groups with middle schoolers, high schoolers and adults to candidly discuss their perceptions of and experiences with drugs and alcohol.

The goal is to re-educate the community about drug and alcohol use by engaging teens in prevention efforts.

“Most [students] said that they did drugs because there were problems in their families, like fights and not getting much attention,” said Joanna Perez, 16.

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Perez said that she expected that answer, but that she did not expect adults to say the same. In fact, she said, the adult participants and the teen participants gave the same answers to most questions about substances students are using and why.

“Adults do care about us, we just don’t have a connection,” Perez said.

For the nine teens who led the Youth Focus Groups, their experience working with an adult like Adler was perhaps as valuable to them as the time they spent giving classroom presentations and gathering data.

“You see so many grown-ups, but you don’t see them caring about kids our age ” they think that we’re trouble makers,” Perez said. “But we though it was cool because here came Dannielle, and she wanted to talk to us and listen to what we had to say.”

The Youth Focus Group leaders will organize data gathered from four focus groups and present the findings to the Community Collaborative of Tahoe Truckee next month in an attempt to target and mobilize the community sectors that can impact policy change.

The data includes information on community norms, access to and availability of drugs and alcohol in the community, media messages, and enforcement.

“The point was to share the information with the community, so that if the community decided to address the issue, the data will be right there,” Adler said. “It was also to give the kids a follow through opportunity to start thinking about what they can do, and what (service) providers might want the information to promote drug and alcohol prevention programming.”

The Healthy Kids Survey, an annual survey given to 5th, 7th, 9th, and 11th graders in the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, addresses many of the same questions asked by the Youth Focus Group, including whether children feel as though they have people in their life who love them, if they feel safe at school and if and why they use drugs or alcohol.

The results of the survey will be shared with the community in the coming weeks and will likely be used to focus funding and programming.

Both methods of gathering data are valuable, but it is perhaps the teen group that makes the greater impression.

“It’s about the personal connection. Sure there’s the Healthy Kids Survey, but they fill out a bubble,” Adler said. “Through this program they are actually being listened to.”

Once the focus group leaders hand off the information to community groups, their job will be complete, but their role as leaders will continue.

“You have to tell your friends that they have you to lean on and that you will be there for them,” said Vanessa Leon, 15. “Because drugs are not the way out.”