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Program targets middle school youth to help students stay substance-free

Michelle Rodriguez grew up in a home where wine was on the dinner table every night.

Her parents came to the United States from Portugal and access to wine — at least at dinner time — was just “the European way,” she recalls.by: COURTESY OF MICHELLE RODRIGUEZ - Poynter Middle School offers posters that encourage peers to lead a drug- and alcohol-free lifestyle.

Now Rodriguez runs HEY! - Hillsboro Empowers Youth - a program that promotes an alcohol- and drug-free lifestyle for youth.

Growing up, she said, she never considered wine to be a drug.

“It was just always there,” she said. “As I got more educated, it was a real paradigm shift in my life.”

As the director of HEY! for the last five years, Rodriguez has concentrated her efforts at the middle school level, the “age of onset,” when youth may begin to use alcohol and drugs. Each of Hillsboro School District’s four middle schools offers an after-school prevention club.

HEY!’s roots began back in 2003 as a part of the Hillsboro School District’s five-year Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative. A subcommittee of that program concentrated specifically on drug and alcohol use prevention.

In 2009, HEY! received a $125,000 per year Drug Free Communities grant from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

That’s when Rodriguez entered the scene. Formerly the state coordinator for the Environmental Justice Working Group in San Francisco, Rodriguez was hired to manage the finances, write grants and be the spokesperson for the group at the local, state and federal level.

What she’s really excelled at, said Andy Cartmill, senior program director for addictions at Washington County Health & Human Services, is coalition building.

“Michelle is professional, passionate and she gets stuff done,” he said. “She brings a lot of people to the table.”

HEY! community partners include county health and human services and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, the Hillsboro Police Department and Hillsboro schools.

Rodriguez said she has been pleased with the community’s support of the program.

“I feel very lucky. It’s astonished me,” she said.

Poynter Middle School eighth-grader Libby Solheim has been part of her school’s prevention club for two years. “We’re talking about using social media to empower kids to stay drug-free,” she said.

According to Rodriguez, the first thing the students learn is site-specific data — real numbers from surveys done at their own school.

“What they learn is that the majority aren’t using ... the majority are making the right choice,” Rodriguez said.

Armed with that information, Solheim and her fellow club members aim to spread the word to those in their age group and beyond.

“Last year we went to elementary schools to share personal experiences of why we choose to live drug- and alcohol-free,” she explained.

The group will do the same again this year, hoping to recruit new incoming seventh-graders to join the prevention club next year.

Data from the Oregon Health Authority’s Healthy Teen Survey and the Student Wellness Survey — both conducted on a bi-yearly basis in the schools — shows that use is on the rise in high schools. And prescription drug abuse is increasing as well.

“Most (youth) are getting it from their own homes,” Cartmill said. “It’s available, it’s accessible. Kids think it must be safe.”

HEY! helps promote prescription drug turn-in days at the Hillsboro Police Department. Rodriguez has been know to wear the pill bottle costume she designed to the event. In addition, HEY! has helped establish a permanent prescription drug drop-off box at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

With proms and graduation season coming soon, HEY! coalition members are beginning to spread the word on “Prom Perfect.”

“We are trying to combat the idea that (drinking and drug use) is a rite of passage,” Rodriguez said.

HEY! partners with local florists and tuxedo rental shops to include notes reminding youth to stay drug-free on prom night.

During the school year, HEY! even runs a “Parent University” to inform and engage parents about ways to help combat youth drug and alcohol use.

For more information on HEY!, see heytogether.org.

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