Washougal students learn to ‘use their voice’

Teen leaders to meet with state lawmakers in Olympia on Jan. 15

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More than 50 regional high school and middle school students recently came together at the new Excelsior building at Washougal High School to learn how to speak up for a healthy future.

The Dec. 20 “Use Your Voice” training focused on how students can become successful advocates for prevention issues, build relationships with elected officials and better understand the legislative process.

Youth Now, an initiative of the Prevent Coalition administered through ESD 112, offered the training, which is designed specifically for school prevention clubs, government classes and leadership groups.

“Youth need to know how important we are and that we can make a difference,” said WHS student Katie Boon. “We don’t need to wait until we can vote to have our voice heard by policymakers. Legislators are making laws that directly affect us, so we need to be involved.”

Julie Peterson, senior director of policy at Foundation for Healthy Generations, led the training. Peterson has received numerous awards and has been publicly recognized as an outstanding leader in public policy, advocacy and legislative work by many community partners.

Students also heard from Representative Paul Harris, who spoke about some of the critical issues he is currently working on that directly affect youth. Harris gave tips and encouraged students to reach out to those who represent them in Olympia.

The training drew students from high schools in Washougal, Battle Ground, La Center and Vancouver, as well as from Jemtegaard and Canyon Creek middle schools in Washougal. “It is important that middle school students participate because the earlier that youth know how important our voice is in changing our world, the more of a difference we can make,” explained Bridgette McCarthy, a Washougal High senior.

Violet Hancock, a Canyon Creek seventh-grader, said she thinks it’s good for young people to learn how to advocate for what they believe.

“Our voice can help shape important laws that affect kids,” Hancock said, adding that one critical issue for her is raising the legal age to buy cigarettes to 21 in Washington State.

“A lot of kids use tobacco and there are a lot of health problems that can come from smoking,” Hancock explained.

National data shows that about 95 percent of adult smokers begin smoking before they turn 21. Studies indicate that delaying the age of when young people first experiment or begin using tobacco can reduce the risk that they transition to regular or daily tobacco use. The older legal age also increases people’s chances of successfully quitting, if they do become regular tobacco users. According to a 2014 U.S. Surgeon General’s report, nicotine is a highly addictive drug, and adolescents, who are still going through critical periods of growth and development, are particularly vulnerable to its effects.

Many “Use Your Voice” training participants will make the trip to Olympia on Jan. 15 to take part in Prevention Policy Day. The youth will have a chance to meet with lawmakers to discuss prevention-related issues, network with other youth prevention teams and celebrate their work.

“Our (Dec. 20) training will help prepare students for that opportunity,” McCarthy explained. “(This work) helps youth understand that they have a voice and can be a resource about healthy youth choices, and they can make a difference by being engaged in the laws and policies that directly affect them. The goal is for students to be empowered to make a difference in their communities.”

Other partners in the Dec. 20 training included the Washougal School District, ESD 112, Prevent Together Battle Ground, STASHA and La Center United.

Information provided by Rene Carroll, for the Washougal School District.