Nine young people sat on a stage at Youth and Family Link in Longview Thursday night and fielded questions while an audience watched in silence, but sometimes in shock.
“Do you think this community has a drug problem?” moderator Cheyenne West asked the young panelists.
All nine hands went up.
“Have you ever been offered drugs at school?” Hands went up again.
“Has an adult ever offered you drugs for free?”
Their hands keep going up. Adults had offered these kids all manner of drugs and illicit substances: marijuana, alcohol, meth, acid, oxycodone, heroin.
The meeting was part of a two-year-old project by the mother of a teenage Longview overdose victim to raise awareness and reduce teenage drug and alcohol addiction. Aliza Mooney started the Jordan Project after she lost her 16-year-old daughter Jordan to a drug overdose in January 2018.
“We saw gaps in the system, and so did she, and we always said when she was in a more stable place we would turn around and use our stories to help others,” Mooney told a reporter before the panel discussion. “Unfortunately, we lost her, but that didn’t change my mission at all. It just made it stronger.”
The town hall featured teens in The Beacon, a youth support group that Mooney started as part of the Jordan Project. Mooney said the point of the event was to give young people a chance to share their experiences with addiction and becoming sober and to tell adults what can be done to help improve the lives of youth.
“The goal is to hear their side, but also to open the conversation up,” Mooney said. “Is Cowlitz County a nice place to grow up in? What could make it better? It’s just starting conversations to get some solutions in place, to hear new ideas.”
The Beacon has been meeting at Link since July 2018 to provide a support group specifically for young people ages 13-18, said Corie Dow-Kramer, executive director of Youth and Family Link.
“It’s a different way to engage the community in prevention and also is supporting kids who want to be sober and clean,” Dow-Kramer said in an interview.
At first, just three teens regularly attended, Mooney said, but now between 15 and 20 young adults meet every Wednesday at Link to talk about their struggles and successes.
“There’s definitely a need, because youth keep coming,” Mooney said.
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As recovering addicts, none of the panelists shared their last names at Thursday night’s discussion.
Jillian, 16, said she’s on the panel to raise awareness of what young people are facing and to help educate adults.
Katy, also 16, agreed, saying she wanted to make sure nobody feels alone in his or her struggle.
Jayden, 17, said she wanted to make sure people knew how to get help.
The panelists had plenty of ideas: a 24-hour safe place for young people, more support programs, things to do to keep young people from turning to drugs, more mental health resources and ending bullying.
“If it’s 3 a.m., and you have nowhere to go and no one to talk to, it would be nice to have a place to go, or a place to sleep,” said Jillian.
Audience members asked how to better support their children and how to get young people to stop vaping, and panelists gave them sometimes harsh answers.
“The problem here isn’t nicotine,” one panelist responded. “We need to fix the other stuff first.”
Others agreed, saying for them, vaping and cigarettes kept them from returning to harder substances.
Katy said the best way to support youth were to make sure adults were there for them, no matter what.
“When we pull away, don’t push us away harder,” she said.
Jayden added: “Let us know you’re there.”
Mooney said while everyone has heard an adult give facts and figures about substance abuse, she wanted this to be a more realistic look at the lives of young people and the reasons they start using.
“As a community, we’re hearing a lot of complaints about things we’re seeing, but what if we started with our youth and invested in them?” Mooney said. “It could grow into something beyond what we expected.”