A recent study by the University of New Hampshire's Carsey Institute has found that what students crave most is a sense of belonging and attachment to their communities. Those who feel that sense of community connectedness are much more likely to make healthy choices when they deal with stress in their lives. But how can schools, families and communities empower students to take constructive steps to reach these goals?
One avenue is through the highly successful Prevention Youth Councils, a program of the North Country Health Consortium, where students share ideas, brainstorm, and problem solve around issues like drug and alcohol use, bullying, obesity, smoking and school violence. In doing so, they develop close connections with their peers, make a positive impact on their communities and learn lifelong leadership skills.
"We have a framework -- the Prevention Youth Council -- that allows students to learn and share from one another; it provides community connectedness," says Bob Thompson, North Country Health Consortium's Regional Prevention Network program manager. "These kids are developing leadership skills, are concerned about the North Country and are taking positive steps about prevention and school climate. Youth leadership is, in itself, a prevention strategy. Students working together and sharing ideas fosters peer-to-peer connections. When they take their ideas back to their schools it increases their ability to collaborate, brainstorm and problem solve."
Ten high schools in CoÃ¶s and Grafton counties participate in the Prevention Youth Council (PYC) system, the only one in the state. Each school has two to four student representatives on the regional council, who are the facilitators for their schools, along with an advisor. Generally, 20 to 30 students from six to 10 of the schools meet once a week throughout the school year and carry information back to their schools. For instance, at a recent regional council meeting, students participated in several activities as ice breakers and team building exercises before reviewing the Flush Flyers (flyers placed in bathroom stalls) and table tent displays they had created about the true risks of drug and alcohol use. The students discussed the pros and cons of each before choosing the top five designs that would be distributed at their schools.
The students are enthusiastic about their involvement in the PYC, their ability to influence other students to make good choices, and the confidence they've gained as both participants and decision makers.
Gorham High School senior Cassandra Poulin has been involved on the regional level with PYC for two years, and prior to that she participated in the yearly conferences that PYC holds. "PYC is a rare opportunity where you go and you don't get judged," she says. "We're on common ground to make healthy decisions and choose a healthy lifestyle."
The PYC, says Poulin, has two missions at her school: one is to plan fun alternatives for students on weekends, like scavenger hunts, and game board and movie nights. The other is both educational and motivational, such as creating flyers, table top displays, and PSAs to educate students about bullying, drinking and drugs. Gorham High also has an Appreciation Station, a board where students can "write really nice things about people; it's blossomed into a nice thing," she says.
"PYC has helped me learn how to work with different types of people," says Poulin, who will attend Southern New Hampshire University in the fall to major in psychology and justice studies. "I used to be strong-headed, but I learned that doing things that way isn't going to make me comfortable with others. Now I put myself out there in a compassionate and easy going way and it's helped."
Jeff Smith, a senior at White Mountains Regional High School in Whitefield, intends to earn a nursing degree when he attends college in September. "PYC affects so many people and changes the face of the community as a whole," he says. "I like to see the changes we've made at our schools and the recognition by state officials. My leadership skills have grown a lot. I've worked in different schools and have gotten thrown into different groups where I didn't know anyone and had to make a presentation. I now run meetings and handle projects."
For one of her college essays, Kathryn Record, a senior at Berlin High School whose goal is to be an occupational therapist, wrote about the PYC and how it changed her life. "It shows people another side of me," she says. "It's a place where I feel comfortable being myself and showcasing my leadership skills."
Asked if she thought what she is doing has made a difference to her classmates, Record acknowledges that some of them are "stubborn" and it can be a challenge to change their thinking and stop destructive behaviors. "I think if we can reach out to the younger population we can be effective," she says.
"I love doing the programs and helping others kids. I like being a role model," says Gorham High junior Zach Host, who plans on a career as a criminal profiler. "PYC was formed by youths for youths. We can divert people to healthier life decisions. It has showed me how to be a leader, how to speak in front of people. It's brought my skills out."
Sean O'Brien, a half-time Project SUCCESS counselor at Lin-Wood Public School in Lincoln who contracts with North Country Health Consortium to serve as the PYC regional coordinator, facilitates the weekly meetings with the student leaders, and meets with the school advisors three times a year.
"The students know what the issues are in their schools," he says. "PYC gives them a sense of belonging, connecting them to both their schools and communities. They want to give back and help their peers as well as their communities."
PYC is planning the annual middle school Youth Leadership conference for early April. "Students organize, plan and facilitate the entire conference," he says. "There will be students from 10 middle schools attending, and the topic will be drug and alcohol prevention. Last year it was improving the school climate. Students are also developing a how-to manual on running a PYC and recruiting students." Other PYC activities include advocacy on prevention issues that affect their communities. An example would be their testimony at the March 11 House Finance Committee Budget hearing at White Mountains Regional High School. Record and Smith were two of the students who stood up and spoke in favor of increased prevention efforts at the state level.
O'Brien notes that North Country schools that have a strong PYC show "great improvement" on substance abuse related measures in the biannual Youth Risk Behavioral Survey. It's evidence like that, along with a comprehensive and effective PYC infrastructure, which attracts funding and has helped PYCs earn a designation as a model program for the state. "We're hoping that at the end of this year, we'll be able to propose to the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, one of our key funders, that PYC be implemented in other regions of the state," he says.
"PYC is rare," concludes Poulin, the Gorham High senior. "You aren't going to find the same imperative with sports groups or student government. The common interest in PYC is being nice to people, finding common interests, and becoming a positive influence on others and the community."
For more information about North Country Prevention Network programs, such as the Prevention Youth Councils, contact Bob Thompson at 259-3704, ext. 244 or firstname.lastname@example.org. North Country Health Consortium is a rural health network based in Littleton that collaborates with health and human service providers serving northern New Hampshire. Learn more at nchcnh.org or call (603) 259-3700.