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Holladay Journal

Preventing addiction through connection at Olympus Jr. High

Oct 01, 2022 07:25PM ● By Heather Lawrence

By Heather Lawrence | [email protected]

Olympus Jr. High’s Red Ribbon Week was Sept. 12-15. For the past four years, PTA and parent volunteers have stepped up to make the week more memorable and engaging for students. The goal is to use connectedness to teach students to avoid unhealthy behaviors, including drug addiction. 

“More and more research is showing that the message of ‘Just Say No’ isn’t enough to keep kids from harmful and addicting behaviors. What we need now, especially since Covid, is connectedness,” said parent Catherine Arveseth.

Four years ago, when Arveseth’s oldest daughter was at Olympus Jr. High, she heard from her friend Emilie Schroepfer about a program she’d started at Hillside Jr. High.

“I’d never paid much attention to Red Ribbon Week. But my friend told me about a program she’d designed to prevent addiction through being positive and proactive, and developing social skills,” Arveseth said.

Arveseth approached the then new principal Josh LeRoy about switching up Red Ribbon Week and making it something really engaging and memorable. He was on board.

“She came to me with this idea of teaching the students to make connections and help them avoid drugs with that. It’s been four years now, and the way we run our Red Ribbon Week is not the traditional way anymore,” LeRoy said.

Arveseth sat in on faculty meetings and let the teachers know what would happen and how they could help. They decided to use the advisory period to teach an element of connectedness each day.

Arveseth also involved students from each advisory class and the student body officers. Together they made videos that were entertaining but also taught an element of connectedness.

“We focused on one element each day that week: Monday was we are one team, Tuesday was gratitude, Wednesday was empathy is a super power, and Thursday was no one is an island,” Arveseth said.

Romney Rasmussen is a sixth-grade congressman (student officer) who helped Arveseth with videos for Red Ribbon Week.

“Because of the activities we did this week, I remember everyone being happy. I thought of waking up and being nice to people. And everyone really liked the fire dance!” Rasmussen said.

The fire dance was one of the lunchtime activities that reinforced that day’s education.

“Drake Auna performed the Siva Afi (Samoan fire dance) at lunch. Then he talked about the power of connection, Ohana (family) and talking out hard things,” Arveseth said.

Another lunch time activity was taking pictures with kids who aren’t in your usual friend group — that was called “Look outside your selfie.”

“The lunchtime activities were optional, but we did incentivize kids with candy to participate. We had good support from parent volunteers during lunch — the spots filled up because people could sense we were doing something special,” Arveseth said.

One of those parent volunteers was Jody Matsumori. Her son Ezra is a seventh-grader.

“The first year we did it, the kids who had been there other years could tell we were putting a lot of work into it. The activities caused them to think about different things that will help them avoid addiction, whatever form that might take,” Matsumori said.

“Though the activities are fun, I think the older kids understand the messaging that this is the antidote for addiction. At this age, they need to think about how they can make life choices that help them avoid an addiction trap,” Matsumori said.

Matsumori said the positive aspect of the education and intervention activities made a big difference. The program teaches kids what they should do — reach out, make connections, include others, develop empathy — instead of just what they shouldn’t do, like, “just say no.”

One of the most memorable events of the week was the empathy activity. Students write down a struggle they’re currently having and anonymously turn it in. Teachers put the papers in a basket and then pass the basket around and everyone takes a paper that’s not theirs. They read the struggles out loud and talk about them.

“The kids are so vulnerable, and it makes it very memorable. They learn that some of their peers are going through the same things as they are, some are going through easier things or harder things.

“It’s very validating. We learn to show up for each other with more compassion,” Arveseth said.

Though Arveseth does all this as a volunteer, she puts in a lot of time researching. The counselors at the school say her approach is right on target.

“This took considerable time and effort. (The PTA) ought to be proud of themselves. As a counselor, I’m already seeing the results, as several lonely or new students have found some friends and allies,” said counseling intern Keira Shae.

“This is the third year we’ve used this model, and it keeps getting better. The activities are age appropriate and navigate a very difficult topic well. It’s a great starting point for us as counselors to build on as we meet with students throughout the year,” said counselor Corrine Kendall.

Arveseth hopes that through fun and memorable education and themed activities the students remember connection is an antidote to many negative things.  

“It’s been said that this is the loneliest generation, and they don’t leave the loneliness at school — it follows them. We’re teaching proactive skills like looking for someone who feels excluded, saying hi to people and calling them by their name and using empathy to relate to others.

“We’ll all have difficult things happen to us in our lives. Kids who don’t have a strong sense of belonging find ways to cope that are eventually harmful,” Arveseth said. “With this program, we want to teach students that how they choose to cope with these difficult things is up to them.”