Washougal students launch campaign to educate about underage substance abuse

‘Breathe Easy’ group gets real about vaping, smoking and drug use in schools

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Washougal High School student Joselyn Guajardo (far right) talks about the school’s Breathe Easy group while fellow group members Angel Garibay-Villa (far left), Eduardo Gonzalez-Campos (second from left), and Gabriella McCormick (second from right) listen during a Washougal City Council meeting held April 22, 2024. (Screenshot by Doug Flanagan/Post-Record)

Washougal High School sophomore Angel Garibay-Villa asked Washougal City Council members during their April 22 Council meeting to guess how many Washougal High students use vaping products. After a few seconds of deliberating, Washougal Mayor David Stuebe ventured a guess: “30 percent? I hope not.”

“It’s actually 12 percent,” Garibay-Villa said. “How would you feel if you thought the majority of your peers used substances?”

Stuebe’s estimate represents the type of misperception about undergage substance abuse that Garibay-Villa and three other Washougal High students are working to correct.

Garibay-Villa, junior Eduardo Gonzalez-Campos, senior Gabriella McCormick and sophomore Joselyn Guajardo, members of the Washougal High Ambassadors Program, formed a group called Breathe Easy after participating in the 2023 Washington State Prevention Summit in Spokane in October 2023.

“We learned about youth leadership and drug prevention,” Guajardo, the group’s president, said during the April 22 Council meeting. “On the car ride back home after our long weekend of training, we came up with an idea to form a youth group based on the information we learned from the conference. We brainstormed that our campaign would be based on underage smoking and vaping and drug use in our school. We spent the whole car ride back discussing our big plans and ideas for our campaign, and we have now made those ideas come to life.”

Since then, the quartet created and sent out a survey to students; gathered data; designed a variety of educational items, including posters, buttons, pencils and bracelets, with positive, welcoming messaging and substance-abuse facts; engaged with their peers about opinions and perceptions; and presented their campaign to school staff, City Council members, and elementary and middle school students; and the Washington State Health Care Authority 2024 Spring Youth Forum, held May 8 in Grand Mound, Washington.

“We want to make sure the parents feel good sending their kids to school every day,” Guajardo said. “We want to make sure that kids feel safe going to school every day. We want to make sure that people know they’re not alone, and that there’s a group of people that wants to live healthy as well. We also want to make sure that everybody knows that they are equal, that everybody knows that even though they may not feel safe walking into a bathroom, (fearing) a vape in their face or something like that, there’s a greater group of people that (wants to) be healthy and to support them.”

The group is hoping to reinforce “positive community norms” about teenage substance abuse, which help reduce “inaccurate beliefs” in communities and motivation to “use substances in order to fit in,” according to Garibay-Villa.

“Positive community norms are about sharing healthy truths about substance use to help reduce (the disconnect between) beliefs and reality,” he said during the Council meeting. “(People have) false beliefs and perceptions about behavior that their fellow peers engage in. The reality (is that) many students don’t regularly use alcohol or drugs.”

After the campaign, the students will conduct another survey to assess its impacts, according to Gonzalez-Campos.

“You guys are true ambassadors,” Stuebe told them. “But you’re more than that. You guys are mentors. I love the fact that you’re making presentations to the elementary school. You guys are leaders. I say this a lot, but you’re part of the solution. You’re showing the kids that it’s cool not to vape, that they don’t have to do that. You are setting an example, and I just want to commend you and thank you for what you’re doing. Incredible what you’ve done so far, looking forward to seeing what you can do in the future. I’m very impressed.”