Teens train peers to ‘use voice’

Washougal workshop prepares Southwest WA youth to meet with lawmakers in Olympia

A poster created by participants at a Dec. 21 "Use Your Voice" workshop hanging inside Washougal High School's Excelsior building shows how youth might advocate for policy change and how a bill becomes a law.

Nicole Nugent, 17, a senior at Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience "HeLa" High School in Vancouver, participates in a Dec. 21, youth-led "Use Your Voice" workshop at Washougal High's Excelsior building.

Ridgefield High senior Madison "Madi" Langer, 17, a youth ambassador for the national Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, speaks to her peers at a Dec. 21 "Use Your Voice" workshop at Washougal High's Excelsior building.

Jesse Jimenes (right), one of the youth leaders of the Dec. 21 "Use Your Voice" workshop at Washougal High's Excelsior building, speaks to 13-year-old Abigayle DeJesus-Wood (left), a student at Cascade Middle School in Vancouver.

Washougal City Councilman Paul Greenlee (left) eats lunch with Olivia McKinney, 15, a Washougal High sophomore (right) at a Dec. 21 "Use Your Voice" workshop at Washougal High's Excelsior building.

From left to right, Olivia Ernst, 15, Kari Lewis, 16, and Cesar Robles, 18, all students at Columbia High School in White Salmon, Wash., discuss regional policy-making issues at a Dec. 21 "Use Your Voice" workshop designed to prepare youth to meet with senators and representatives at a Prevent Policy Day in February.

Ridgefield High School senior Madi Langer still remembers the first time she tried vaping.

She was 15 years old and hanging out with one of her best friends. When her friend, an accomplished gymnast, offered Langer a Captain Crunch cereal flavored e-cigarette or “vape,” Langer didn’t think it was a big deal.

“My friend was really athletic. And I looked up to her,” Langer, now 17, says. “I thought, ‘If she’s doing it, it can’t be that bad for you.'”

Two years later, Langer is a youth ambassador for the national Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and using her short stint as a tobacco and marijuana user to help her peers — as well as adult policy-makers — understand just how easy it is for young people to get hooked on the nicotine-infused vapes.

As a Tobacco-Free Kids ambassador, Langer is trying to raise awareness about the prevalence of vaping amongst young teens — in September 2018, Food and Drug Administration commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb called vaping among youth “an epidemic” and said e-cigarette manufacturers must begin to discourage sales to teens and children.

Langer says vaping is common amongst her peers and that she sees teens vaping at least four times a day. She believes one way to discourage youth vaping is to raise the legal age for tobacco products from 18 to 21 years old.

“The statistics show that about 96 percent of adult smokers started before the age of 21,” Langer says. “Most of my senior class peers are already 18, so they can legally purchase (vaping products) and it’s easy to find an 18-year-old friend to buy it for you if you’re younger. Raising the age to 21 would make it harder to get … and a lot of people would never start.”

Langer recently brought her advocacy work to Washougal, when she joined two other youth facilitators to lead the Dec. 21 Use Your Voice workshop at Washougal High’s Excelsior building.

Organized and led by nationally trained youth like Langer, the workshop focuses on how young people can make a difference in their own communities through policy-making and laws.

Nearly 70 middle and high school students from three counties in Southwest Washington attended the Dec. 21 workshop in Washougal. In mid-February, those teens can put the skills they learned at the Use Your Voice workshop into action, meeting with their senators and representatives at the Washington Association of Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention’s Prevention Policy Day on Feb. 18, in Olympia, Washington.

Bridgette McCarthy, a 2018 Washougal High School graduate and freshman at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, got involved with the statewide Prevention Policy Day when she was a middle school student at Canyon Creek Middle School in Washougal.

“I remember when (drug use) became more personal to me. One of my classmates was using and disappeared. It made it real and I started thinking about the effects (of drugs) on people around me,” McCarthy says. “That’s when I became involved with Unite!”

The Unite! Washougal Community Coalition, which co-sponsored the Dec. 21 workshop at Excelsior, supports a variety of programs that encourage youth to make healthier choices, especially choices surrounding the use of drugs, tobacco and alcohol.

As a young teen, McCarthy, now 18, said meeting with her own senators and representatives at the Prevention Policy Day opened her mind to the difference between making changes on an individual level and making a difference on a more wide-reaching level.

“The politicians wanted to hear from us, from the youth, because we’re passionate. This isn’t a job for us. We’re not lobbying them,” McCarthy says.

Using the policy-making skills she picked up in middle and high school has served her well. After fracturing her elbow when a pedestrian walked in front of her as she was longboarding, McCarthy realized she and her peers might be able to affect college policy to help longboarders and pedestrians.

“We came up with the idea of putting stickers down, to show (lanes) for riders and for pedestrians,” McCarthy says. “It was just a class project, but it was helpful knowing how to come up with creative solutions to problems like this.”

Last year, McCarthy attended the Use Your Voice workshop at Washougal High School and found herself trying to pay attention to the adults leading the sessions.

When she found out that this year’s presenters wanted the workshop to be organized and led by trained youth volunteers, McCarthy jumped in to help.

“I think it’s much better as a youth-led workshop,” she said halfway through the Dec. 21 event. “I can see that people are much more engaged this year.”

Hosted by the Prevent Coalition’s Youth Now group in partnership with Unite! Washougal Community Coalition, and funded through a Washington State Department of Health account from marijuana taxes, the workshop led students through a series of group and individual activities to prepare them for participation in the Feb. 18 Prevention Policy Day. Washington State Rep. Paul Harris also spoke to the students at the Dec. 21 workshop about using their voices and getting involved in government.

“We’re helping them learn how to be advocates,” McCarthy said of the youth-leading-youth workshop. “They will have the tools to go out there and feel confident talking to their principal, or city council or state senator and to make a difference in their schools or communities.”

For more information about the Prevent Coalition, a group of community members working to prevent youth substance abuse in Clark County, visit PreventCoalition.org.

For more information about the Washington State campaign to raise the legal tobacco age to 21, visit washington21.org.

To learn more about Unite! Washougal Community Coalition, visit unitewashougal.org.

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