In Bristol, youth are jumping in with both feet - literally - to take the lead as peer educators with the B.E.S.T.-4-Bristol Coalition. Youth Leaders guide the B.E.S.T.-4-Bristol Coalition on how to combat youth substance abuse and underage drinking in Bristol. The members, ages 11-17, implement a “peer to peer” approach to prevention.The students start their journey as youth leaders at the Pine Lakes Adventure Course for a three-day recruitment event full of ziplining and team building tasks. On the course the youth are provided a safe place to build leadership skills and learn to trust one another. Christina Sanchez, the former Project Coordinator for the coalition’s Drug-Free Communities grant explained that the students have to be one another’s safety net. “The youth came out of the experience bonded with one another and ready to tackle prevention efforts in the community. It was a great way to get youth excited about working with each other to reduce youth substance use!” The recruitment event has become a rite of passage; a way for Senior Youth Leaders to pass the torch to the newest members.
During their tenure as Youth Leaders, the students are trained by respected prevention specialists on current drug trends and build skills to become advocates in the community. The students get opportunities to participate in a wide range of activities in professional youth development, such as attending the Youth 2 Youth Conference in Rhode Island. As members of the B.E.S.T. -4-Bristol Coalition, youth work alongside representatives from all twelve sectors of the community including business leaders, healthcare professionals, school administrators and law enforcement. Students meet once a week to develop initiatives for their school and community. They have created a vaping lesson and taught middle school students in extracurricular activities the dangers of vaping. The group has also participated in community events like the Bristol Mum Parade and Rockwell Park Festival. However, they are most proud of the PSA they wrote and recorded with AMP Radio.
The B.E.S.T.-4-Bristol Youth Leaders are a great example of how far youth engagement can take a coalition. Here are the three main points to take away from what makes their effort successful:
Give youth a front row seat at the table
“It is crucial to have youth at the table because they teach us adults the current trends in what is affecting everyday life for teens and tweens. After all, we are trying to reduce youth substance use, therefore youth should be heard and we need to listen," says Sanchez. The coalition has found it most effective to have Bristol youth teach their own peers because youth relate to friends and teammates more than they do to adults.
Respect their time
Teenagers are busy! Officially recognize the time and talents they give to the coalition by tracking their volunteers hours so they can report them on college or job applications. Let them know the level of commitment you expect upfront. In Bristol, Youth Leaders commit to one meeting per week. Says Sanchez, “After the recruitment, we will start meeting once a week and to teach them prevention strategies and have them get creative with what they want to do to raise awareness of youth drug use and underage drinking in Bristol.”
Take stock of resources in your own backyard
Sanchez, who lives in Bristol, said she never knew of the Pine Lake Adventure Course until doing a resource inventory as part of her grant coordinator responsibilities.Have your youth members help you look at the resources in your community that might collaborate to support their goals - you may see things through a new lens!