Geoffrey Arthur, executive director of Valley Prevention Services, realizes that in order to prevent kids from abusing drugs and alcohol, they need to be reached before the age of first use.
The alarming age of 13, according to Arthur, is when youngsters have reported is the first time they have tried cigarettes and alcohol, and between 14 and 15 is the age for first-use of marijuana.
Armed with this information based on a 2011 survey of more than 2,000 youth in Lycoming County, Valley Prevention Services offers its "Too Good for Drugs" program to local second- and third-grade students.
The curriculum pairs the importance of positive self-esteem with having an understanding of which grown-ups to turn to for guidance, as well as basic information regarding substance abuse. The follow-up program, "Get Real About Tobacco," is offered to fourth-grade students.
"When young people feel good about themselves, they have more confidence in making decisions, therefore, self-esteem is very important," Arthur said. "Part of building self-esteem in youth is rewarding the young person when they make good decisions. This reward or acknowledgement can happen at home, in school, by neighbors or community members of the young person. A young person is more likely to repeat the positive behavior if they are recognized and rewarded for it."
Children also need to know that there are people "on their side" who support them, he added.
"It's therefore important that a child knows how to reach out to others when they are having difficulty," Arthur said. "They need to know that they can reach out to a parent or close relative, a teacher or guidance counselor, their pastor, etc., and that these people will be there to help them."
Pascha Ferry, a curriculum instructor, meets with classes twice a week for five weeks. There are 10 lessons for each grade level, with each lesson lasting between 40 to 45 minutes.
Valley Prevention focuses its attention on offering age-appropriate curriculum. According to Arthur, the lessons and skills that are taught to a second-grader are different than what should be taught to a fifth-grader. What is most important is that the child can relate to the information that is being presented to them.
"For example, we would not talk about drinking and driving with an 8-year-old because they really cannot relate to the behavior of drinking and driving in their everyday life," Arthur said. "However, we can teach the children about how to deal with uncomfortable feelings in a positive way or how to set goals."
The lessons flow so that the program focuses on decision-making skills and goal setting in its early lessons and how to apply these skills as it relates to resisting alcohol, tobacco and other drugs in its later lessons.
Programs now are offered at Williamsport, Loyalsock Township and Montgomery Area school districts, but Arthur said with more funding, Valley Prevention could reach even further.
"There is no child that is totally immune from becoming involved in alcohol, tobacco and other drugs," he said. "Prevention is so important. We know that if we take a flu shot, we are less likely to get the flu. We know now that when children receive a sound, evidence-based program like 'Too Good for Drugs,' they are less likely to become involved in alcohol and other drugs. More funding means healthier decisions by children and healthier children."
Valley Prevention evaluates each service that is provided. The children are given a pre-test before the first lesson and a post-test after the last lesson, allowing the facilitators to gain knowledge on what the child has learned. The children also are asked to complete an attitude survey during the final lesson. The children can tell, in their own words, what they learned and what had the biggest impact on them. A written evaluation is later mailed to the classroom teacher, asking for feedback on the program. The pre- and post-tests consistently come back with improved learning of not only the information but the skills the children learned, Arthur said.
"The children often note in the attitude survey that the best part of the program was learning the resistance or refusal skills," he said. "We just received a teacher evaluation in which the teacher wrote 'Currently, as third graders, the students remembered the ['Too Good For Drugs'] lessons from the second grade. Impressive!! Thank you!!' Because of Lycoming County United Way funding, we are able, as is the case at this school, to provide the 'Too Good for Drugs' programs in consecutive grades to the children. The research tells us that when a child has the lessons in consecutive grades, the information and skills has an even greater effect."
"Providing support for the Valley Prevention programs is a lot like the old proverb 'Give a man a fish you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,' " said LCUW executive director Scott N. Lowery. "In today's society we need to do much more than tell youngsters to say no to drugs. We need to educate them on the dangers substance abuse will mean to their lives. It can't be done in gray areas, it needs to be personal to make an impact. Valley Prevention provides classroom education to equip the kids with the resistant skills they need to stay away from alcohol, tobacco and drugs. This information is needed to combat the peer pressure to experiment that young people are exposed to."
"Without United Way funding, this program would not be provided at the schools and with the children that are receiving it," Arthur said. "Literally, hundreds of children are receiving 10 lessons each."
"Our annual campaign provides funding to vital programs that affect the everyday lives of so many people in Lycoming County. We are entering the home stretch of our campaign and still need about $750,000 to enable us to maintain the human services that were used last year 46,379 times by county residents. Helping us help others can be done with a gift to this year's campaign," Lowery said.
For more information, call the United Way office at 323-9448 or make a donation online at www.lcuw.org.