By Eric Banford
A group of local students recently had the opportunity to make a presentation about substance abuse to a worldwide audience.
A contingent of 17 students from New Roots Charter School in Ithaca and Charles O. Dickerson High School in Trumansburg researched issues related to substance abuse, interviewed experts, designed an action plan, and then presented their ideas at a briefing before around 150 people in New York City and a videocast to all UN affiliates and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) worldwide.
The project was initiated by Gertrude Noden, a Global Education Motivator and founder of Words into Deeds. Through the GEM initiative she met with Jeff Brez, director of NGOs for the United Nations Department of Public Information, to discuss strategies for bringing more Central New York students to the UN, and agreed on the topic for a presentation on youth perspectives on substance abuse.
Noden then met with Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick, whose proposal to open a supervised heroin injection facility sparked conversation nationally, who agreed to participate. She then connected with Sue Schwartz and Kerry DeLisa at New Roots, and Jane George at Dickerson, and submitted grant proposals to fund the project, receiving a grant from the Community Foundation of Tompkins County (Lane Family Fund) to cover its costs.
Finally, she formally applied to the UN-DPI for a Youth Voices briefing – hers was one of the two chosen from applications from the 1,200 NGO affiliates.
“The kids were amazing, they really came through,” said Noden. “We only had two rehearsals, but these kids set their intentions and were just really in tune. One audience member said it was the best presentation he’d seen in five years.”
Noden was really impressed with how the students matured during the whole experience.
“They were moving away from misconceptions, stereotypes, and prejudice towards people who use drugs, and really humanizing those people as individuals deserving dignity,” she said. “There was a shift toward caring, empathy, and personal perspective development.”
Erin Harrigan, a Trumansburg 9th grader, did her research on how substances affect the brain.
“I compiled information on how substances effect the brain as it’s developing, like for kids our age who might be using for the first time,” she said. “How the brain becomes addicted and why it’s so hard to stop using.”
Harrigan’s research helped her to destigmatize how she thinks about people who use drugs.
“It might be your choice to start using or you get pressured into it, but then your brain takes hold and it’s a cycle that is very hard to break away from,” she said.
Wren Martinson focused her efforts on raising awareness about the drug problem in general.
“It happens in your area too, it’s not one of those things that doesn’t happen here,” said the Trumansburg 9th grader. “Before this project I didn’t know the scale of the problem.”
Martinson was impressed that students from a “small town” were able to have their say on the global stage of the UN.
“It was cool how open it was and how fluid it was for us to be there,” she said. “The process that we went through really helped us to look at problems and see how you can solve them.”
Arianna Wright, also a freshman in Trumansburg, researched genetic predisposition to drug use, something that impacts her directly as her parents have both been addicts.
“Fifty percent of addicts have a genetic predisposition, so for many of them it’s really not their fault,” she said. “Addicts have feelings, and they have reasons for starting and for stopping drugs.
“For example, my Dad was an addict but he got me and my siblings back, and now he’s like ‘Wow, my life is going great so I guess I should stop,’” Wright added.
Students studied the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights documents.
Harrigan realized that “many people are denied those rights because drug abuse is so stigmatized that people think you don’t deserve help.”
“Everyone has a right to try to do better for themselves and to seek treatment and have someone believe in them,” she said, adding she liked that the UDHR recognized that education is the start of most things, namely, “education that allows you to think critically for yourself instead of educating you how to think.”
Jane George, a Trumansburg English teacher who advised the students, said “it was a very proud moment watching my students present.”
“This was the first time any of them did this kind of work and presented at this level,” she said. “They were all very nervous leading up to the forum but they were amazing and really got their message across.”
George hopes that other schools will get involved in similar opportunities outside the classroom.
“I will be teaching a class next year called Global Humanism that will focus on research and projects with the intent of taking students to the Annual Youth Leadership Conferences at the UN,” she said. “Our students are the future and we should listen to what they have to say, now!”
Students will continue to implement their outreach activities, targeting, in particular, the Southern Tier Aids Program, the Alcohol and Drug Council of Tompkins County, and the Ithaca Rescue Mission, and will also expand their information distribution.
They’ll be bringing their presentation to the local community as well, with an event scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday, May 19, at the Hangar Theatre. The program is open to all and funds raised will support the services mentioned above.