Young Ambassadors ... Equals at the table.
Weekly Youth Ambassador Meeting in 2018
By Donna Lane
There’s been a lot of news coverage about the mental health crisis with our school-age children, especially as it relates to the two-year isolation kids endured during the pandemic. It seems to have eclipsed news about the opioid epidemic and substance abuse issues.
Does that mean mental health problems have surpassed those created by opioids and other substances? Does it mean substance abuse is no longer a problem or that people have been desensitized to the issue? Not according to Aubrey Ciol, Program Director for ImpactNorwood.
“I know the hot topic right now is mental health,” Ciol stated. “But mental health and substance abuse go hand in hand. So, if you care about mental health you should also care about substance abuse.”
And ImpactNorwood is the avenue by which the Town continues to show it really does care.
In 2014, in recognition of the toll the opioid epidemic was having on communities across the Commonwealth, the Norfolk County District Attorney’s office provided seed money to local communities to try to get coalitions started. They believed that substance use coalitions could focus on reducing the number of people who use, overdose, fatally overdose, or contract diseases due to use of dirty needles.
They approached police Chief William G. Brooks III who, together with Sigalle Reiss, former Director of Norwood’s Health Department, started the ImpactNorwood coalition. In 2017, they applied for and received the Drug-Free Communities grant from the Office on National Drug Control Policy (run by the Centers for Disease Control). These grants were to be used to focus on use/substance use prevention, especially for youths in grades 6 to 12 to prevent them from using substances and to reduce current rates of substance use.
According to Ciol, we are currently in year five of the ten-year grant. After five years, however, you have to reapply, which we did in April.
The Youth Ambassador program was started because those running the program believed that youth are needed to help determine the strategies that will be used to help their peers. ImpactNorwood guides the group but, according to Ciol, the answers lie within Norwood’s adolescents and teens.
“Instead of having a bunch of adults come up with ideas for how to prevent new substance use, we empower youth by informing them about effective prevention strategies and then let them take the lead in developing the campaigns and the projects that we are going to work on,” Ciol said. “We guide them, but the youth who work with us are equals at the table, helping to steer us in the right direction.”
Currently, the group consists of 15 student Ambassadors.
“There is currently a core group in middle school, but we would welcome more from the high school,” Ciol said. “There was a large contingent of high school Ambassadors last year, but most of them graduated, so ImpactNorwood is looking to attract more youths in that age group.”
With the many activities students are already involved in, what might be some motivations for them to participate as Youth Ambassadors? The biggest incentive espoused by current and former students is that they want to help others and be part of making positive contributions. Many of their reasons are as insightful as they are altruistic.
Take Youth Ambassador Elizabeth, for example.
“I am a Youth Ambassador because I want to help make positive changes in our community,” Elizabeth said. “I want to help prevent others from feeling like they aren’t in control. I want to help people choose not to do things that would be harmful to themselves and their families.”
And then there is Adamaris.
“I am a Youth Ambassador because I want to make a difference in the world and I believe this is the right place to start,” Adamaris said.
Through the act of giving their time, energy, and ideas, students who participate often gain significant life skills and knowledge via the Youth Ambassador projects, presentations, health education, public speaking workshops, and community service interactions. ImpactNorwood provides the resources and training for students to take action.
But it’s not all work!
“Students are also invited to travel to Washington D.C. for a conference with us in January or February where they get to meet youths from across the country who are also working to promote mental health and prevent youth substance abuse,” Ciol said. “Their work on projects helps them to gain leadership and public speaking skills; have the opportunity to engage with their community; and have the potential of obtaining an internship with the health department of Norwood. There’s even an annual Dodge Ball Tournament!”
Some of the campaigns that the Youth Ambassadors have implemented to date include a Social Voice campaign which highlights the positive behaviors of youth in the community and a Photo Voice campaign where they collected photos of advertised substances