To address the challenges facing youth today, you have to involve the youth themselves. That is what Mirror's Youth as Resources program is designed to do — bring in high school students from communities around Harvey County to not only get their input on what needs to be done about issues like underage drinking and illegal drug use, but also empower them to take action.
"We're really building a big network to address (the issues)," said Des Martens, coordinator of prevention services at Mirror.
There are 125 YAR members in the towns of Peabody, Burrton, Sedgwick, Halstead, Hesston and Newton, each of which select two representatives that sit on a county board.
"Those youth are leaders in their schools," Martens said. "...They're part of the solution, and their ideas are very good."
The YAR members come up with and lead projects they feel their community needs.
"They present to seventh and eighth graders, they have alternative activities and party nights that they lead." Martens said. "...It's not just us telling them what to do."
Lauren Thompson, a high school student who lives in Newton, was part of the YAR group that put on a Family Feud-style game at Chisholm Middle School in October.
"We brought up students from the crowd," Thompson said. "We actually made the games into a quiz about drug and alcohol abuse."
The interactive presentation was designed as a social norms campaign to dispel myths — especially about marijuana use.
"I think a lot of them were surprised by the statistics," Thompson said. "Kids in middle school and high school, because of social media and the songs that we listen to — like rap music — we think that everyone uses drugs."
YAR gave out blue bracelets that said "Over 95% of your Middle School peers choose not to use drugs or alcohol."
"We tried to remind the kids you're in the norm if you're not doing drugs," Thompson said.
Students often think it is normal to do dangerous things during their high school years and laugh at those warning of the dangers of drugs and alcohol abuse, Thompson noted. She was motivated to join YAR after hearing that the group was looking for new members and seeing friends were refusing to join.
"Even if it was uncool, I wanted to spread positivity and encourage people to make positive decisions," Thompson said.
YAR focuses on educating middle school students about the dangers of drugs and alcohol because those who are exposed at that age can become addicted.
"We want healthy behaviors, but we have to start with healthy beliefs and clear standards in families, schools, communities and peer groups," Martens said.
Martens cited a recent study of Harvey County youth that Mirror commissioned, reporting the perceived availability of marijuana to high schoolers is higher than the state average. The study also showed alcohol use for youth in Harvey County is above the state average and found that many youth thought they would not get caught or punished for underage drinking.
"That's a perception that will lead to more use. That doesn't mean it's true, but if they think they won't be caught, it increases use," Martens said.
Mirror is working with the Newton Substance Abuse Board, Halstead Community Foundation, Central Kansas Community Foundation and the Kansas Health Foundation and a coalition of schools, media, law enforcement and businesses to educate and inform them of the students' concerns.
"You have to have everybody at the table," Martens said. "The youth are ready; we need the adults at the table because they can implement the changes in policies."
Having strong bonds between adults and youth makes the likelihood of standards and beliefs being passed on. Through YAR, Mirror hopes to show people they can make a difference in their town and limit community, family, school and peer risk factors that influence youth.
"You look at what are the most important of these that we need to target and what do we think we can change," Martens said. "The exciting thing is that we're at a good place in Harvey County. People are saying, 'we want to do something.'"
For more information about Mirror's Youth as Resources, visit https://mirrorinc.org/prevention or call 316-283-6743.