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It's a question a student likely hears at some point from a teacher as they matriculate through school, pondering whether they'll take the straight-and-narrow path or veer off-course: "Raise your hand if you want to grow up to be a drug addict."
Oak Park resident Jennifer Vollman never thought she would turn out to be that person.
As a former student at St. Ignatius High School, Vollman was a good student, got good grades and played tennis. But something was missing. She didn't fit in. So by age 15, Vollman started drinking. It progressed to pain pills, marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine and heroin. Vollman became that addict no one aspires to be as a grown-up.
"Most of my girlfriends were not in sports," recalled Vollman, 23, who shared her story at the May 5 drug and alcohol forum hosted by Oak Park and River Forest High School.
"The cool thing that they were doing when I was going to play tennis tournaments on the weekends (was) going to parties. I started feeling left out," Vollman said.
Her addiction spiraled out of control. She argued with her parents, who often called the police for help. Vollman had several attempts at rehab before she hit an "emotional bottom" while in college. That finally led her to get control of her addiction. Vollman got clean at age 19 and now works as a substance abuse counselor in Hoffman Estates.
"I want to help young people and students know that they don't have to make the same choices I made," she said. "If they are going through something similar that I'm going through, there is help out there for them."
Vollman shared her story as a tale of hope with students and parents attending the Thursday night forum at OPRF, 201 N. Scoville.
School officials sponsored the packed event to get in front of an alarming rate of substance use among their students. According to the 2010 Illinois Youth Survey, 41 percent of OPRF's seniors said they have used marijuana, while 59 percent have used alcohol. The national average for marijuana use is 21 percent.
Forum organizers wanted a venue where parents can bring their teens to learn about the dangers of drugs and alcohol—the goal is for families to talk openly about substance abuse.
"Teens assume that if their parents hadn't had a conversation with them (about drugs and alcohol) then that means it's OK," said Roma Steinke, of IMPACT, an advisory group of parents, police officials and community leaders. "Most of the time that is not true, but that is the way they perceive it."
OPRF Principal Nathaniel Rouse admitted being surprised by the statistics, but saw it as an opportunity to assist youth and parents with resources.
"It is surprising, but that being said, I'm happy that we do have those statistics; and from that we could look at that data and work on decreasing that," he said. "So (the next) part will be when we do the next youth survey, will those numbers decline."
The forum featured presenters, including a local judge discussing the legal consequences of substance abuse, and River Forest police officers who outlined its new social hosting law, which olds individuals responsible for holding gatherings that condones underage drinking.
Sergeant Michael Thornley of the River Forest Police noted that teens are migrating to harsher drugs like heroin. He explained that teens are getting drugs from their friends and even their parents' medicine cabinet.
"The ability to purchase any type of illicit substance is in walking distance from where we are right now," he said. "It is within a phone call of where we are right now. Your kids can text for drugs. They can email for drugs. They can call for drugs. They can walk down the street for them."
While encouraging parents to know how to use a smart phone to look for those clues, Thornley said: "You do have to be a spy. You can never be vigilant enough talking to your children."
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