More than 100 New Jersey high school students from Somerset and Hunterdon counties gathered at Somerville Elks Lodge June 28 and 29 to address youth drug abuse for the state’s first Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America (CADCA) Youth Leadership Training conference.
The two-day interactive program featured discussions on drug abuse in the local community and what can be done to prevent it from spreading. CADCA hosted the event along with the National Youth Leadership Initiative (NYLI), an extension of CADCA that empowers youth to prevent substance abuse in their communities.
“Our focus is to give them a problem solving framework to use in their coalitions and communities to make a community-level change in their environment around substance abuse,” said Melanie Peskay, an NYLI trainer.
State Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli started the event by welcoming students and taking time to listen to their opinions about the Overdose Protection Act Gov. Chris Christie signed into law in 2013.
Community leaders and event organizers alike stressed the importance of getting young people involved in finding a solution for the country’s drug abuse epidemic.
EmPoWER Somerset and several other organizations that partnered to bring the conference to Somerville recognize the power of students to improve their communities.
“We don’t walk in the shoes of the students, so their voice is extremely important in the efforts,” Brenda Esler, executive director of EmPoWER Somerset, said. “The youth don’t realize the powerful voice they have.”
Grace Gordon is a sophomore at Mount St. Mary Academy in Watchung. She hopes to take what she learned at the conference to prevent substance abuse at her school in the future.
“When I return to school in the fall, I know that I will use what I have learned to help make a difference,” Gordon said. “I will talk about the issues and help stop drug abuse in my community.”
Nick Cordero, a freshman at Bridgewater-Raritan High School, says he has seen drug abuse first-hand and that society needs to change how it addresses addiction in order to end this drug crisis.
“People die from drug abuse every day, and we need to let people my age know that there are consequences for bad actions,” Cordero said.
Hunterdon and Somerset County each ranked in the top 10 list of wealthiest counties in the United States, according to the most recent data from the Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates.
Despite notable wealth in these communities, a number of substance abuse problems exist, including significant issues with prescription drug and marijuana use.
“According to the young people, affluence has brought in a whole different slew of drugs and substances that people aren’t exactly talking about,” said Peskay.
The state ranks sixth in the United States for overdose deaths among 12- to 25-year-olds, according to the Trust for America’s Health.