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Youth summit on opioid awareness draws large crowd in Lancaster


by Tara Giles
Sports reporter - Coos County Democrat and Berlin Reporter

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More than 100 students from all over the North Country gathered on May 24 for a youth summit on Opioid awareness. (Courtesy Photo) (click for larger version)
May 31, 2017
LANCASTER — Everyone who went used the word "inspirational" when describing the crowd of more than 100 students from all over the North Country who gathered last Wednesday evening at the Rialto Theatre in Lancaster to make their voices known regarding the opioid epidemic ripping through New Hampshire.

Guest speakers were on hand to address the students including the Student Assistance Program Coordinator from Groveton High School, Erik Becker, who said "I was there not only as an SAP, but with my own students as well. The youth are the ones going home to addiction. They see and are affected by it every day. They are the first ones to notice when a peer is having a hard time. They have the opportunity to engage each other and try to help, but also the power to let adults know if somethings seriously wrong. It's not just about drugs, but depression and suicidal thoughts. They have the power to save a life by speaking up."

A group of students from the North Country Charter Academy in Lancaster began this journey as a school project over one year ago, however the momentum took a turn and now several communities are involved.

Greg Williams, the Substance Misuse Prevention Coordinator for the North Country Health Consortium, said, "A year ago at the Charter Academy, the kids had a plan to tackle the opioid problem. We began by creating a mural that links social media to prevention in a socially conscience way. The last part was to hold a youth summit where students can speak and have a voice."

Williams went on to say, "The whole premise of it, is that kids are going to have to handle this problem because they are born into it. They are living it and they need to know how to deal with it."

Since children and teens are constantly connected to their phones, Williams feels that is the best way to have the kids engage.

"I think the kids need to use their phones as a positive tool," he said. "They can use social media to raise awareness. For example, the power went out and the kids lit the place up with their flashlights on their phones to stop a problem. That was a metaphor for what we were trying to et across."

Williams said that politicians and speakers familiar with the cause were highly impressed with the summit at the Rialto.

"I had people come up to me and tell me it was the most special event they've ever been too, and that we took a complex issue and tackled it from several angles," Williams said. "The kids had a chance to get up and speak. It was one of the best things I've been to in my entire life."

White Mountains Regional High School freshman Jaden Vashaw was at the summit in hopes that he could learn what he can do to help end the crisis.

"One of the biggest things that I took away from the summit would be that everyone is affected by substance abuse in their own way, and the youth summit definitely helped those people cope with what they are going through." Vashaw said, adding "More and more teens are being affected by the epidemic in one way or another, and they're trying to fight the epidemic head on in any way they can."

Moving forward, Vashaw said he is going to personally make an effort to make a change.

"I'm going to try to speak up to as many people as I can. Without someone talking about it, no one is going to know how to stop it," he said. "The drug epidemic is something that not a lot of people are educated about. Someone needs to step up and teach them about it."

Fellow freshman at WMRHS Josh Womble added his take, saying "I found that it really opened my eyes. I knew that addiction was a problem, but I never knew so many people that suffered from it were so close to me. It also made me realize how much I can do to help them."

Womble said, "Im going to reach out to my friends and family to teach them that they aren't alone and then I will go from there."

Becker said, "The students seemed to respond really well. Even my own students who hear me talk about this daily expressed that they really liked my message."

Recovery innovator Bernadette Gleeson was on hand at the Rialto. Gleeson has addressed crowds far and wide on the topic of recovery and has her own unique way of delivering her message to invoke a positive response.

"I wanted to confirm what the kids already know," Gleeeson said. "They have the power to be an opportunity for their peers. They can change the game by being the light and keeping their peers in the light. They can have a direct impact on people's opportunity to stay alive and be alive in recovery today."

Her reaction to the students of the North Country?

"The youth at this summit exemplified how much power and agency they have to shift this forever. This was a ridiculously inspiring and impressive event because it honored their power and voice by sharing in truth and solutions – together."

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