FAIRMONT - Local youth learned they are not alone in the battle against underage drinking.
Eleven freshmen, sophomores and juniors traveled to Nashville, Tenn., July 22-26 for the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America's National Youth Leadership Initiative. The kids squeezed in some fun with go-kart races and music concerts, but most of their time was spent learning about underage drinking.
The Services for Challenging Youth of Martin County received a five-year federal block grant to study underage drinking, including its causes and how to prevent it.
Chris Ettesvold, left, and Lucas Jedlicka, right, zoom around a go-kart course during some free time recently at the National Youth Leadership Initiative in Nashville.
"Alcohol is the most widely abused chemical," said Erica Volkir, planning and implementation coordinator for the Fairmont Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition. She attended the mid-year training for adults.
"It's frequently the first drug kids try and they are getting exposed to it younger," Volkir said.
Underage drinking is a broad topic, with many variables. The nine girls and two boys who attended the leadership initiative learned how they could begin taking on such a daunting task.
"You need to fix the big problem by fixing the little problems," said Melissa Ferguson of Fairmont, who will be a junior.
The kids were asked what they thought contributed to underage drinking.
"Kids our age that have older friends who supply alcohol. They drink to be accepted by their friends," said Lindsee Tromanhauser of Fairmont, who will be a freshmen.
"Parents don't lock up the alcohol," said Emma Tunnell of Fairmont, who will also be a freshman.
"Boredom; nothing else to do in town," said Ferguson. "A lot of kids just want something to do. If we got other stuff in town, free stuff to do, a lot don't have money in this economy."
"The media has an effect," Tunnell said. "It shows it's harmless and fun. It doesn't show the effects, how you can get addicted."
Lack of consequences are a contributing factor, she added.
"They figure if I don't get caught this time I won't get caught next time," Tunnell said.
Even when kids are caught, the girls said, the rules and punishment are often not enforced.
Drinking alcohol can be a way for kids to forget the stresses in their lives, Ferguson said.
Family problems or underlying mental health issues, even growing up in an environment where kids don't see a good example, can all make them more apt to use or abuse alcohol to "escape or solve their problems," Volkir said.
One of the exercises the kids took part in was making posters that showed one of the problems and how to solve it. They then presented their creation to the rest of the other coalition groups.
There are simple solutions, the kids said.
"Just giving out warnings to parents to lock up liquor," said Tunnell.
"Making it harder to get alcohol will help, but not solve it," Ferguson said.
"Raising awareness" of the damage alcohol can cause will help, Tromanhauser said.
For the local girls, just seeing how many other kids across the nation share their concerns bolsters their courage.
"It's nice to see other coalitions trying to figure out the same problems," said Tromanhauser, who made some friends from Oregon.
Getting out the truth will help, Volkir said.
The 2012 Minnesota Positive Community Norms surveyed kids and parents anonymously.
In the survey, 81 percent of adults believed most high school students in the community used prescription drugs without a doctor's prescription. The results from the high schoolers indicated that 94 percent have never used prescription drugs without a prescription.
Another question relating to underage drinking showed there were misperceptions amongst the youth themselves. In the survey, 57.1 percent of students in grades 7-12 reported never using alcohol, but when they were asked how often they thought most of the students in their school used alcohol, only 12.6 percent of those surveyed believed that most of their peers had never used alcohol.
"This over-estimation of use/abuse is an example of the misperceptions that exist, which in and of themselves can become a risk factor for youth substance abuse," Volkir said. "In general the surveys revealed that both adults in the community and the youth themselves vastly overestimated the use of alcohol and drugs. It is these misperceptions which are important to correct so that they do not become risk factors."
In other words, if the kids think all of their peers are doing it, they will be more apt to do likewise. Services for Challenging Youth has a goal to inform the students of the facts, including what their peers are actually doing and what alcohol can do to their bodies and minds.
"The take-away for the community and youth is one of hope that most youth at (Fairmont Area High School) are not using drugs and alcohol and the students need to know that they are not alone in making that choice. They are actually in the majority," said Volkir. "However, we still are concerned about the ones who do (use)."