Local coalition focused on substance use prevention keeps youth engaged with virtual experiences

Around the country everyday people are changing the way they go about their work to serve their community during the current public health crisis. Likewise, organizations that normally take pride in providing services or hosting events that bring people together – are now rapidly shifting how they operate in order to navigate the challenges presented by the outbreak of COVID-19. Locally, such change-makers are helping to  bring new meaning to the phrase “virtual reality” as they adapt and develop innovative ways to move their mission forward and create real-life impact.

Above the Influence [ATI]-Kent County was developed by the Kent County Prevention Coalition (KCPC) as a community of teens committed to thinking critically about personal choices and future ambitions, related to underage substance use and abuse. This youth coalition “promotes the power community teens have individually and collectively to impact peers, family, community norms, and the world – by making a personal commitment to live Above the Influence.”

Since 2012, ATI has hosted an annual youth-driven summit intended in part to celebrate its mission to empower youth to think critically about personal choices – and to bring awareness to emerging community health and wellness trends related to underage substance use. This year, due to the public health crisis presented by the spread of COVID-19, the summit, which was held at DeVos Place in years past, was postponed. 

“At the KCPC, we aim to be on the cutting edge of reaching youth with effective prevention strategies and implementation,” says Denise Herbert, prevention services program director at Network 180 and spokesperson for the KCPC. As such, in the interim, the KCPC rallied to develop and host a virtual experience for its youth.

On Friday May 8, ATI Virtual Experience took place as a live broadcast across all the KCPC’s social media channels. Staying true to a youth-driven platform, the Virtual Experience was ‘no adults allowed’ and hosted by two “generational transformers:” artist, educator and gallery owner, Stephen M. Smith, and head football coach at Godwin Heights High School, Brandan Kimble.

“What made me the proudest,” says Kimble, “Was being able to get hundreds of teens to join a social media live event based around a positive topic.”

“So much is happening online right now and unfortunately most of it is not good for teens viewing,” he continues. “So, being able to bring them together to have a really fun time – while also teaching positive lifestyle choices, was extremely gratifying.”

While the virtual experience perhaps could not fully match the excitement and energy created when teens gather face-to-face with peers during Youth Summit, Herbert shared that the event was designed to motivate, encourage, and empower. This inspiration comes at a time when social distancing and sheltering in place is posing a new risk of increased substance use and abuse, whereas some experts are warning parents to be vigilant of signs and symptoms of substance use.
“During our time of quarantine, we have consulted prevention science, current impact of mainstream media influences, and the individual experiences of some of our youth to create a unique online viewing experience for youth EVERYWHERE,” says Herbert.

As Michiganders remain under Governor Whitmer’s executive stay-at-home order, it can be helpful for youth to have a platform to engage with peers around pre-pandemic interests, celebrate end-of-school-year activities, and amplify their voices while adapting to the new normal of distant socializing. One way ATI was able to generate excitement around its May 8 Virtual Experience was by producing its own recording of the #DontRushChallenge to announce the event.

What started out of boredom for two college students in the United Kingdom in the early days of the pandemic, turned into a social media craze and has become a source of empowerment and enjoyment for people all over the world as shelter in place continues.
The Virtual Experience itself was high energy and received over 1,300 views on KCPC’s Facebook page.

With home isolation being a key factor cited as a cause for the potential rise of substance use and abuse, because individuals are disrupted from familiar routines and activities, it matters that organizations like KCPC and everyday change-makers like Smith and Kimble are adapting to the current climate and developing innovative ways to engage with the community and move their mission forward.

“Hope is not quarantined or under a shelter-in-place order,” Herbert says. “The KCPC believes that there is nothing more powerful than a young person that is supported, loved, purpose-driven, and operating with a positive self-image.”

“We want our youth to stay above the influence during this challenging time,” she continues. “We want them to be inspired and ignited to lead socially and culturally even during times of crisis.”

The Kent County Prevention Coalition has plans to bring its youth coalition back online for another virtual experience. On May 29, Above the Influence-Kent County is hosting a virtual prom for high school juniors and seniors. ATI Virtual Prom is slated to be a 2-hour Zoom event where participants are encouraged to get creative in inventing their own quarantine-style, prom-like environment.

Above the Influence-Kent County is designed for youth in grades six through 12. However, its programming is appropriate for youth of all ages, Herbert shares. “We know that it is vital to keep all youth engaged, focused, and mentally healthy during this time,” she says. “These virtual experiences have been crafted with that in mind.”

Photos courtesy Kent County Prevention Coalition

Written by Kendra R. McNeil, Innovation News Editor at Rapid Growth Media and owner of We Are LIT Grand Rapids bookshop.

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