Shared experience, blunt warnings

OPRF students teach real life lessons to peers

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By Cassandra West

On this Thursday morning, the freshman in Mr. Campbell's health class are getting a lesson on "The Blunt Truth," but he won't be teaching it. Instead, two seniors, Abby Sacks and Carolyn Santos, are at the front of the class.

The health class is on its drug and alcohol unit for the semester, and Abby and Carolyn are here to do a workshop on the straight facts about marijuana use for the some 27 students. The teens know their stuff and are well prepared to not only give these freshman solid information but confidently answer their questions.

They are members of OPRF's Healthy Youth Peer Educators program, started two years ago by Ginger Colamussi, the school's social work and prevention and wellness coordinator.  HYPE students teach workshops in various classes throughout the year.

"When I developed HYPE, I modeled it after peer educator programs that are common at colleges and universities," Colamussi said. "Having a peer educator program is unique at the high school level and is a powerful opportunity for our students to hear directly from their peers about the importance of making healthy choices that can positively impact their lives."

Students training students has unparalleled appeal because it's effective. While Kevin Campbell could have easily taught the unit, Abby and Carolyn bring something many adults can't: common experiences. 

After getting lots of requests from teachers to come into class and give presentations, Colamussi felt that students were already spending all day listening to their teachers talk about topics and having other adults come in and give them information. "So I thought it might be more powerful for students to hear that information from their peers, from other students who are actually going through what they're going through, living those same experiences and could effectively speak to how they're are making healthy and positive choices in their lives," she said. 

That is exactly what motivated Carolyn. "I joined (HYPE) because I've been a part of a lot of bad happenings with my friends," she said, "whether though sexual assault, rapes, drug abuse, depression, domestic violence -- the whole rainbow of it. Doing this meant that I would be able to tell people the signs that they can find that they're not doing OK and where they can go to get the help they need."

Abby tells the freshman that there is "a lot of misinformation about the effects of marijuana."

And that's the reason, Abby and Carolyn are here — to deliver "the blunt truth."

They present the lesson in the form of a game. 

Carolyn and Abby go over the rules and ask the class to divide into teams and select animal names for them. After some chatter, students toss out the names they've chosen: Penguin, Sharks, Octopus, FSM Flying Spaghetti Monster, Dolphins and Monkey.

First question: "THC, the main active chemical in marijuana, affects the brain by: a. Coating specific parts of the skull b. Binding to specific receptors in the brain c. Shutting down specific parts of the brain."

The correct answer is b.

Sometimes when answers are revealed, Carolyn or Abby shared additional information, showing their command of the subject. At one point, Carolyn goes into depth on explaining the effects of marijuana.

Following some answers, students ask questions. At one point, a male student tries to counter the amounts of harmful chemicals used in vaping, a trend among high school students that involves inhaling and exhaling an aerosol, often referred to as vapor, produced by an e-cigarette or similar device.  

The game goes on for most of the class period. Octopus team wins with 36 points and wins the prize, candy. Abby thanks the freshman for being, for the most part, "attentive."

Abby and Carolyn are pleased with the outcome and in their ability to impart important, and potentially life-saving, information. "Now that I know a lot more, I feel way more comfortable answering questions," Carolyn said.

The full HYPE membership is currently 20 students, ranging from sophomore to seniors, and students must apply, get recommendations, interview and get accepted into the program, Colamussi said. She is open to having more students involved, around 25-30 "to make sure everyone gets quality training."

SIDEBAR: HYPE students find ways to connect with peers

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).

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