By RUTH LILJENQUIST
For many children living in the city of South Tucson, drug use and abuse is an all-too-familiar problem, one they often find within their own homes. Exposed to drugs, alcohol, and tobacco at any early age, these children face intense pressure from peers and even family members to start using these substances themselves. And when they do, they begin walking down a path that leads to nothing good.
That’s actually the message of a motivated group of youth in the city of South Tucson who are determined to reduce drug use in their community. These youth participate in Youth-to-Youth, a teen leadership program at John Valenzuela Youth Center, a satellite center of Pio Decimo Center, which is an agency of Catholic Community Services.
Youth-to-Youth is based on a nationwide program that harnesses the power of positive peer pressure to keep teens free from tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. The goal of the program is to keep kids drug free by communicating strong peer disapproval for drug use, encouraging kids to remain drug free, and providing a forum for kids to socialize in positive ways.
The youth themselves lead the program, with guidance from adult advisors. Jessica Alderete, one of the Youth-to-Youth adult advisors at JVYC, is proud of the courage and commitment of the youth in the program. “These youth want to make a difference in their families and in their community. They want to be positive role models for other kids.”
Members meet weekly to plan a variety of activities to educate other kids about the dangers of drugs, often based on drug problems they see arising in their community. For example, when they saw that other youth in their community were smoking K2, a synthetic marijuana sold in smokeshops as incense, they developed an educational skit “Marijuana vs. K2,” which pitted the two drugs against each other in a boxing match. When they both knocked each other out, the message to youth was that no one wins when using either drug.
Members are also advocates in their community. A few years ago, the youth worked with the University of Arizona in a mapping study, locating all the alcohol vendors in the city of South Tucson. In one square mile, there were 40 vendors. This information helped them convince the city council to deny vendor requests for additional liquor licenses. The youth also convinced the city council to ban the selling of K2 in their city, well ahead of the state ban enacted by Governor Jan Brewer. Today, the kids are focused on banning a source of synthetic cocaine—bathsalt, which, like K2 was, is being sold in smokeshops.
“Our Y2Y youth know what other kids are doing, so they know what they need to respond to,” said Jessica.
Alejandro, 16, has been a member of Y2Y for over three years. He’s motivated to stay drug free because of the substance abuse he has seen in his family. “I want to be different. I want to show my family that I’m not like that, that I can do better. And they are really happy for me.”
Alejandro likes going out and giving information to other youth and to parents. Both youth and parents are shocked, he says. The kids are shocked to learn what drugs can do to them, and parents are shocked to find out what their kids are doing.
Sometimes Alejandro gets some ribbing for belonging to Y2Y from other youth. “I just tell them I am trying to do something good in my life.” And that sometimes gets youth interested in joining.
Doing something good with your life as opposed to taking a path to nothing good through drug use are the choices before many youth in South Tucson. With youth leaders like Alejandro, Youth-to-Youth is helping other kids make the right choice.
For more information about the Youth-to-Youth program, contact Jessica Alderete at (520) 792-9251.