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Red Ribbon Week

Artwork created by students at the Calistoga Junior/Senior High School for Red Ribbon Week.

“I feel defeated,” said the mother of a teenager last fall, at a focus group for UpValley parents about youth substance and alcohol use. “How do I talk to my kid about the risks of smoking weed when what they’re hearing everywhere else is that it’s ‘medicinal’?”

She wasn’t alone in her feelings of futility. Other parents at the focus group voiced similar questions: Now that marijuana is legal, how does that change the conversation about responsible use? How do you protect your teen from the epidemic of e-cigarette use, especially when you’re up against peer pressure and marketing campaigns that tout vaping as a less harmful alternative to cigarettes? And how do you teach responsible alcohol use in the heart of wine country?

Here UpValley, our communities have ready access to – and relatively tolerant attitudes towards – alcohol and marijuana. The wine industry drives our local economy and plays a significant role in making the Napa Valley the exceptional place that it is. Now that the State of California has legalized it, marijuana, too, is becoming more visible, and local city governments across the county are grappling with questions about responsible regulation of growth and sales. It presents local parents with a complicated question: in this area with easy access, how do we teach teenagers to be responsible about substance use? How do we motivate a teen to consider holding off on trying something until they’re a little older – when their brains have finished developing, and they’re better able to make informed decisions for themselves?

These questions are complicated, and also urgent. Data from the most recent California Healthy Kids Survey shows that Napa County faces a relatively high rate of teen alcohol and substance use in comparison to the rest of the State. It also shows that youth drug and alcohol use are on the rise, as is the percentage of teens who have driven, or driven with someone, under the influence. At the same time, attitudes of perceived risk or harm are decreasing.

In light of these statistics, the UpValley Partnership for Youth (or UVPY) helps parents and community members to develop effective ways to address teen alcohol and substance use. Coordinated by the UpValley Family Centers in partnership with the Napa County Office of Education, and funded by a federal Drug-Free Communities Grant, UVPY brings together a broad coalition of community members – including not only parents, but also schools, law enforcement, business, service providers, and youth themselves – to develop tools that can help us tackle this issue together.

UVPY works at a variety of levels at once. The coalition pursues policy changes, for example: It’s currently working with the Calistoga Joint Unified School District to better address vaping at school – and it recently worked with the city of St. Helena to add marijuana to its Social Host Law, which prohibits any person from allowing youth alcohol or substance use at their residence.

The UVPY coalition also educates the community. We host Town Hall meetings and other presentations that address myths and facts about youth substance use, existing policies, and the health and legal consequences involved. Our next meeting is coming up on Wednesday, May 8 (at the St. Helena Performing Arts Center at St. Helena High School), and will provide an opportunity for parents and youth to hear from a variety of local experts.

UVPY engages youth themselves through a variety of school-based activities. Last year, for example, the coalition facilitated an art show at the Junior/Senior High School in honor of Red Ribbon Week, a nationwide awareness week for youth drug and alcohol prevention, for which participants were encouraged to create art that focused on positive prevention messaging. UVPY also worked with the After Class Enrichment, or ACE, program to host a carnival of interactive activities around substance abuse and prevention.

And finally, UVPY seeks to be a resource for local parents. Whether it’s providing facts about drug use, suggesting ways to counter social media messaging and peer pressure, offering tips on how to build trust with teens, or simply giving parents the courage they need to set clear ground rules – our goal is to help them more effectively and confidently address the issue of drinking and substance use with their kids. Our focus group last fall provided space for local families to tell us about the struggles they were facing with their kids, and the questions they had about youth substance use. This month, we will be following up by providing a special class for local parents about how to talk with teens about drug use and other difficult subjects.

Youth are exposed to competing messages about alcohol and other substances. And if it’s hard for parents to make sense of it all, imagine how impossible it might be for a teenager to distinguish fact from fiction and make responsible choices – especially with the pressures of social media and peers piled onto their shoulders. The UpValley Partnership for Youth ultimately tries to help youth in this process by bringing the community together in a unified response, offering both consistent messaging and a strong network of supportive resources that encourage youth to feel strong, responsible, and healthy.

If you have any questions about the UpValley Partnership for Youth, or would like to get more involved, please reach out to Regina Penna at rpenna@upvalleyfamilycenters.org.

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