In its second year, a Martinsburg, W.Va., Community Prevention Partnership program aims to snuff out dangerous behaviors before

In its second year, a Martinsburg, W.Va., Community Prevention Partnership program aims to snuff out dangerous behaviors before

October 15, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

The natives are restless.

At 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 2, the final bell has rung at Martinsburg South Middle School and 30-plus teens slowly filter into the school's cafeteria.

It's early autumn, but hot and sticky outside, mid- to upper 80s, and humid. The stuffy lunch room feels even hotter, and the rowdy crowd chatters loudly.

For the next hour and a half, these boys and girls will embark on a year-long prevention/education program to discourage negative behaviors that range from drug and alcohol abuse to succumbing to peer pressure.


Normally, if force fed this info by teachers or guidance counselors, the students would roll their eyes or tune out.

But this is no punishment. This afternoon - and every Wednesday for the school year - they are here of their own free will, eager to soak up the lessons of their leaders.

Because in this program, adults take a back seat to high schoolers. For the younger teens, the change in leadership makes all the difference.

"They put it in a fun way," says 12-year-old Roger Miller. "They don't just yak, yak, yak."

"They were our age, too," adds Sara Fries, also 12. "And I know teachers were too, but they're closer to it. They remember more, they can give us more detail."

Begun last year as a pilot program at South Middle, Skills Mastery and Resistance Training (SMART) Moves has older teens teach their younger counterparts life lessons that might not sink in if preached by more authoritative voices.

Expanding to North and Musselman Middle schools this fall, the three schools will teach more than 100 sixth and seventh graders the consequences of substance abuse, pregnancy and other social ills. In the process, they will play games, make crafts and have as much fun as possible.

Sometimes, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

"To get them at sixth grade and tell them the effects of alcohol and drugs on the body, to some of them it seemed to be a surprise," says 16-year-old Justin Hitzel, a Martinsburg High junior, peer leader and chair of SMART Moves. "I think most kids know it's bad for them, but don't know what it does, and for the most kids it seemed to sink in for them."

In its 13th year, the Community Prevention Partnership is also responsible for Rampage, a local teen club that provides an alternative to hanging out on the streets.

SMART Moves, a decade-old Boys and Girls Club of America program, has been successful in Jefferson County, and the Partnership got the idea to transplant it to Martinsburg.

Facilitated by peer leaders like Justin or 16-year-old John Haarman, the program always has an adult on hand, though usually in the background.

And with separate programs for ages 6 to 14, plus a parental version to let mom and dad know what their child is learning, SMART Moves sets the table for responsible decision making in early adulthood, according to Tracie Welch, prevention program manager for the partnership.

"My generation it was 'Just say no' and it was kind of a joke," Welch says. "What does it tell me? It tells me what you want me to hear.

"We say if you smoke marijuana, this is what can happen to you. ... We're giving them the information they need to make the decision to say no."

Roger and Sara enjoy the weekly session with their friends, away from the stress of classrooms and grades. They like the snack that begins each SMART Moves meeting. Making crafts and playing games are fun, too.

And while they joke around, the messages taught sink in. So much so that each student is eager to become a peer leader as he or she gets older.

"I want to be the person that helps them understand it," Sara says. "It's a good feeling when you know how someone has helped you and you've helped someone else."

Martinsburg North Middle, Martinsburg South Middle and Musselman Middle schools students interested in SMART Moves should ask their guidance counselors for more information, or call 1-304-264-0944.

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