In communities nationwide struggling with opioid and other substance use, afterschool and summer learning programs are playing a critical role by increasing resilience among young people, supporting positive youth development, and preventing future substance use among children and youth. On May 22, the Senate Afterschool Caucus and 15 youth-serving organizations and afterschool providers came together for a congressional staff briefing detailing the ways afterschool and summer learning programs are working in a cost-effective way to help build and support an integrated, trauma-informed approach that supports children, youth, and families.
Program providers from the Montgomery County Maryland Park and Recreation Department and Boys and Girls Clubs of Tennessee Valley, as well as state-level afterschool leaders from Alaska and West Virginia, addressed a large crowd of more than 60 attendees to discuss their programs, partnerships, and efforts to support young people ages K through 12.
Mavis Nimoh of the Afterschool Leadership Circle and the United Way of Rhode Island moderated the briefing, which took place in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill. Mavis set the stage by providing background on both the opioid epidemic and the scope of the afterschool field in serving more than 10 million young people every afternoon.
“Afterschool is a place to practice good programming so children make good decisions for themselves and have positive outcomes,” Nimoh began.
Thomas Azzarella, Director, Alaska Afterschool Network, spoke directly to those outcomes in his geographically expansive and highly rural state. Youth Risk Behavior Surveys (YRBS) conducted by the Centers for Disease Control for Alaska showed young people who engaged in afterschool programs just two times a week were 20 percent less likely to use alcohol and 40 percent less likely to use marijuana than their peers. “Afterschool itself is a protective factor,” Azzarella remarked, noting that protective factors are characteristics, including from skills, resources, and experiences, that help individuals to cope with the stresses of life and self-harming decisions such as substance use. The Alaskan state legislature just passed legislation that would expand access for more youth to engage in afterschool programs and the connections and supports they provide.
Nila Cobb, 4-H, West Virginia University Extension Specialist – Healthy Living, shared her personal and professional connection to afterschool programs’ role in the opioid crisis prevention and treatment. Cobb’s own daughter suffered the disease of opioid addiction shortly after having her first child years ago. Cobb took responsibility for her grandson, now a recent high school graduate, and has been working within her community toward developing the research-based response, funding resources, transportation solutions, and continuum of care practices that prevent, treat, and support those affected ever since. It’s essential to address the problem from many angles, she noted, saying “If there was a (single) solution, I would have figured it out because I’ve been working at it for 19 years.”
Stacey Busby, Director, Boys and Girls Clubs of Tennessee Valley, discussed how, in some ways, her area’s designation as a highly affected area for drug use has proven to be a strange blessing. The designation in the top few slots comes with funding, part of which makes it possible for her program to provide safe, stable, nurturing environments for youth.
“But not all programs get to have this blessing,” she stated, “and that’s why we’re here today.”
The Tennessee Valley clubs began a Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) initiative to address youth concerns about feeling unsafe in their schools and communities. They hired a licensed clinical social worker and work with a local university to access additional social work interns. They developed a system of working in partnership and building personal relationships with other community support agencies so they can provide a “warm hand-off” in connecting families with other needs. They also focus on valuing the youth and staff themselves, working directly with youth to determine their needs and provide supports and activities using a trauma-informed approach and engaging in conversations with club staff about looking at youth differently — changing the mindset from ‘what’s wrong with you’ to ‘what could have happened to you and how can we help.’
Tiffany Nelson, Recreation Specialist, Montgomery County Recreation, Maryland, presented information on the county’s Excel Beyond the Bell youth programs and how the programs use community partnerships to create a circle of support around their most vulnerable youth. More than three-quarters of the 2,000 students in her program are referred by the school system as highly vulnerable children. Programs are free and offer a hot meal and free transportation home. Nelson said the programs (which offer enrichment subjects such as STEM, the arts, cooking, sports, and civic leadership and engagement) are very popular and that she is known for her tendency to over-enroll to reduce the number of students on wait lists.
Four enthusiastic students from the Excel Beyond the Bell gave their own assessment of the impact the program has had on their lives thus far. Ethan and Frederick mentioned the programming including the mentoring programs, basketball programs, and targeted programming that encourages students to create their own anti-drug information campaigns and understand how drug use affects the body.
Another student mentioned the social connections he made: “My family still lives in Jamaica… so EBB has been like a family to me.” When he got in some trouble, mentors helped get him back on the right path.
One 8th grader, Valentina, spoke about hip-hop. “I get to show my talents and learn from others and the program helps me to keep away from my neighborhood until my parents get home.”
The briefing was hosted by the Senate Afterschool Caucus, co-chaired by Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.). The briefing was provided in partnership with the Office of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Office of Sen. Tina Smith, the Afterschool Alliance, After-School All-Stars, Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Coaching Corps., Communities In Schools, Every Hour Counts, Forum for Youth Investment, Girls Inc., National 4-H Council, National League of Cities, National Recreation and Park Association, the Student Conservation Association, and the YMCA of the USA.
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