Two high school juniors go to Washington, D.C., to participate in three-day national forum

PHOTO SUBMITTED BY HEATHER STUART - U.S. Rep. Greg Walden poses for a photo with Crook County High School juniors Mitchel Bennett, left, and Olivia Cooper.

Two high school students joined three community leaders at an annual three-day forum last week in Washington, D.C., to bolster efforts to curb local substance abuse.

Crook County High School juniors Olivia Cooper and Mitchel Bennett attended the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America's 28th Annual National Leadership Forum with Crook County Community Coalition chaperones Heather Stuart, Jill Bonnano and Officer Jeff Coffman. The group joined approximately 3,000 substance abuse prevention specialists and advocates from throughout the country at the event.

This was the first forum for Bennett and the second for Cooper, whom Stuart said showed more confidence as she appealed to attendees and members of Congress regarding local concerns and needs.

"Last year when Olivia went, there were so many kids from other counties. It was kind of hard to be heard," Stuart recalls. "(This year) she was so confident and assertive. She got right in there and was the first youth to stand up and address concerns."

The mission of CADCA is to strengthen the capacity of community coalitions to create and maintain safe, healthy and drug-free communities globally. The organization provides technical assistance and training, public policy advocacy, media strategies and marketing programs, training and special events.

CADCA's National Leadership Forum, the nation's largest training event for community prevention leaders, treatment professionals and researchers, took place at the Gaylord National Hotel and Convention Center Feb. 5-8.

The forum covered a wide range of topics – everything from how to prevent prescription drug abuse and the abuse of synthetic drugs and marijuana to how to create tobacco-free environments and develop policies to reduce underage drinking.

The coalition representatives heard from several leaders, including Acting Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy Richard Baum and Dr. Bertha Madras, Harvard Medical School, who both shared their expertise and insights. Crook County Community Coalition will also meet with U.S. representatives and senators at the Forum's Capitol Hill Day event.

Cooper and Bennett primarily addressed a new work plan the two are developing for Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD).

"In that work plan, they have been interviewing key stakeholders in the community to get an idea of what their greatest concerns are and also to get any feedback on what they think high school students can do to combat substance abuse," Stuart said. "She (Cooper) introduced that to the representatives and just explained that one of our biggest concerns is the marijuana usage in Crook County among youth."

Both teens got face time with Crook County's congressional delegates, Rep. Greg Walden and Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden.

"A lot of counties went there with specific asks of the representatives," Stuart observed. "We really just thanked them for their support and our ask was pretty broad in just asking them that they please continue to support substance abuse prevention in Crook County."

In addition to the Capitol Day event, the two teens and their chaperones attended different forum sessions. A favorite of theirs was one that focused on building confidence and networking.

"They felt a lot more confident going back to Crook County and working on the work plan after that session," Stuart said.

And the high school juniors weren't the only ones who benefitted from the event. Stuart said that the different sessions helped her with her professional development.

While the two high school students were able to attend the annual CADCA event, funding is not yet available to pay for youth attendance at another event held in July. Stuart hopes to see that change or perhaps bring more students to future events through the efforts of Cooper and Bennett going forward.

"Our goal is to have Olivia and Mitchel start fundraising with the other SADD kids so that in years to come, we could take a large group of youth," she said.

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