WASHINGTON, D.C. — “Wait, you guys came up with the PSA ideas or you acted in them?”
The question by U.S. Rep. Andy Harris’s legislative director Timothy Daniels Jr. elicited a smile on the faces on the nine Cecil County teens who were sitting across from him.
“We wrote, directed and acted in all of them,” said Kelsey Meis, a Bohemia Manor High School sophomore, drawing raised eyebrows from Daniels and his boss Wednesday afternoon.
“Well next time you’re filming a PSA let us know and I’ll be in it with you guys,” Harris replied.
The visit with Harris was part of a daylong trip to Capitol Hill for the Cecil County high schoolers who participate in the Cecil County Drug-Free Youth Coalition, including Meis, Bo Manor senior Matthew Ryan and sophomore Ainsley Erdner, Elkton High School juniors Asia Travers and Gwen Klim, North East High School juniors Katie Crouch and Hannah Tingley, and Rising Sun High School juniors Mike Rando and Reid Wooten.
The youth coalition is an offshoot of the Cecil County Drug-Free Community Coalition, a federal-grant-funded program that tasks local groups with advancing youth alcohol and drug use prevention. That group includes a dozen chartered community leaders along with more volunteers who help to steer prevention efforts in the county.
Over the past year, CCDFCC Chairwoman Beth Creek and CCDFCC Coordinator Virgil Boysaw had been discussing how to extend the youth’s involvement in their efforts year-round. Previously, the teens met for a Youth Leadership Summit in November, where they learned about prevention and created the PSAs that impressed their lawmakers.
But the teens reported that they felt disconnected after the summit, when they took their efforts back to their individual home schools. In order to change that this year, the youth coalition was created to bring students from all schools together once a month at the Elkton offices of Youth Empowerment Source, the youth-focused nonprofit that Creek also heads.
“In the first meeting, the teens outlined their goals for the coalition. They wanted to see the overdose rate go down, but they were also practical and they aimed to spread messaging that there are youth out there who are not using substances,” Creek said. “We like to say these activities are youth-led, adult-guided.”
The day in Washington, D.C., was part of the four-day forum held Feb. 4-7 by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA), which advocates for and educates the thousands of coalitions across the country, as well as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which helps administer the Drug-Free Communities grants.
While at the forum held at the Gaylord National Convention Center, the teens, along with numerous county health, social services, law enforcement and education officials, heard from top-ranking federal officials in the fight against drug abuse, including first lady Melania Trump, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, SAMHSA Center for Substance Abuse Prevention Acting Director Luis Vasquez and National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Nora Volkow.
They spent the afternoon on Feb. 6 visiting with Maryland’s congressional delegation and advocating for alcohol and drug-use prevention efforts. After meeting with Harris, the teens visited with staffers in the offices of U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen.
Boysaw said that day on Capitol Hill, perhaps more than any other aspect of the forum, was an education for the teens.
“They’re taking away their role in civics and a lesson in how to empower their voices to make change,” he said.
While discussing the efforts of the coalition in Cecil County, Harris remarked that he was impressed with all that the county was doing to try to make a dent in the rising drug abuse epidemic.
“When I was just in Talbot County talking with the sheriff there, I brought up Cecil County because of all the work it’s doing,” the congressman said. “I want you to know that Cecil County has a reputation for being a leader on the opioid issue.”
In meeting with a staffer from Cardin’s office, Crouch said that she has had to watch a family member struggle with substance abuse, which led her to get involved with the youth coalition.
“I want my family to grow up in a safe, drug-free community,” she said.
She invited the senator to attend a drug use prevention rally that the teens are organizing for May in conjunction with National Prevention Week, which runs May 12 to 18.
Crouch encouraged Cardin to attend, noting “that gives assurance to our community that our officials do care and they are listening.”
The teens got to briefly meet with Van Hollen before he left for a meeting, informing him of bills and initiatives that could help future efforts, including the Sober Truth on Preventing Underage Drinking Act, or STOP Act.
In meeting with Van Hollen’s health policy staffer, the teens emphasized Cecil County’s Handle with Care program, where school administrators and teachers are notified about traumatic episodes that may have affected a student, asking them to consider alternative behavioral supports as needed.
They also requested additional funding to make the youth coalition coordinator a full-time position rather than a part-time one.
“As proud as we are of our group, we want to keep growing and adding youth,” Erdner said.
“Look at how much we have done already with just a part-time coordinator, so imagine what we could do with a full-time person,” Meis added.
Finally, they also highlighted the fact that all nine teens were trained in over-the-county medicine safety, and in turn they will teach all Cecil County Public Schools sixth graders about the topic during their stays at NorthBay next fall.
“The more youth who get involved the bigger the impact we can make,” Erdner said. “It’s not just adults who are here to fix it, we’re all invested in making a change.”