Granite Youth Alliance empowers teens to learn and educate others about substance misuse. And they’re doing it in all kinds of creative ways.

When a group of local high school students noticed that the gas station they passed on the bus everyday – just outside the school zone – was completely covered in large advertisements for tobacco and cigarettes, they thought that was a problem.

So they did what any group of empowered citizens would do: they sought to change it.

Through United Way of the Greater Seacoast’s Granite Youth Alliance program, based on the Dover Youth to Youth model of youth empowerment, that is what they have learned to do.

The program, which works in six schools throughout Rockingham County (Epping Middle School, Epping High School, Newmarket Junior/Senior High School, Seabrook Middle School, Raymond Coalition for Youth, and Cooperative Middle School), trains students with the skills and knowledge to take action in their community around the issue of substance misuse.

That’s how Alec and his peers found themselves writing a letter to the local gas station owner, explaining why it was inappropriate to market tobacco so aggressively right next to a school zone. They delivered the letter personally and had a polite conversation with the owner. And it worked. Soon, the signs were removed.

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It wasn’t their first community project either. When a GYA team noticed a local go-kart business had Budweiser logos on the side of the children’s go-karts, they took similar action and had it removed. They also successfully lobbied for a town ordinance to ban smoking near a skate park where a lot of teenagers spend time. And they spent a day going undercover at mall stores buying drug paraphernalia, then wrote to the store managers that they should not have been able to purchase these items without parental consent.

“Just one of these things may not make a huge impact itself, but by consistently getting the message out I think we are making a difference,” said Alec. “It is cool to see that if we speak up and do things the right way, we can make a change, even if it seems small.”

A CHANGE IN THE COMMUNITY

The teens don’t just write letters. They also spend a lot of time talking to their high school peers, and even younger students, about the prevalence of substance misuse among youth and how to fight the pressure to join in these behaviors.

“The social norms are to do these things, so we want to tell other kids that they don’t have to follow that,” said Caitlin, a sophomore at Newmarket High School. “I think it makes a difference hearing it from people their own age rather than an adult or authority figure telling them what to do.”

So they do presentations at school assemblies about the seriousness of alcohol, depression, and its impact on health and decision making abilities. They also created a radio PSA to discourage high-schoolers from using e-cigarettes.

But the message doesn’t start there – they talk to younger students too, learning and performing skits like “Samantha Skunk – why smoking stinks” – a tobacco prevention program designed for second graders.

And right now, each team is working on creating their own video for the 5th Annual Granite Youth Film Festival, where they will get to watch their videos on the big movie theater screen at O’neil Cinemas in Epping on June 4-5th. The videos range from PSAs to documentary style short films about substance misuse.

“The PSA is one of my favorite things we’ve done,” says Faith, a freshman at Epping High School. “It’s a lot of fun to see it up there, knowing how much work we put into making it and to know that it’s making a difference.”

A CHANGE IN THEMSELVES

Perhaps even more so than the difference their work has made in the community is the difference it’s made on themselves.

Alexis says she used to get panic attacks at the idea of speaking in front of a group. Yet last week, she comfortably and confidently stood in front of a room of adults and talked about Granite Youth Alliance’s work at a Seacoast Public Health Network forum.

And Alec, who is graduating this spring and plans to go to UNH this fall to study computer science, says the experience he gained with GYA will be an asset.
“Even though it doesn’t directly apply to my field, I know things like being able to work with different types of people and feeling confident speaking to a group will help me a lot in college.”

That is the beauty of youth empowerment, says Dana Mitchell, a prevention coordinator with Dover Youth to Youth who works closely with the students.

“It’s a two-fer. The students are directly benefiting by learning these skills and gaining valuable life experience, but they are also inspiring and impacting others in their community. They grow and change so much. More than they even realize.”

Click here to learn more about the Granite Youth Film Festival and get your tickets for June 4-5th at O’neil Cinema!

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