Nonprofit helps kids steer clear of substance abuse

The Baltimore Sun

. The availability and popularity of drugs and alcohol are a reality for many teenagers, including 18-year-old Lauren Barr.

"I think there's a ton of pressure," said the Mount Hebron graduate. "Unfortunately, a lot of the adults do not understand or know how to deal with it."

HC DrugFree, a nonprofit based in Howard County, aims to change that by educating parents about teenage smoking, drinking and drug use.

"HC DrugFree's mission is to empower the Howard County community to raise drug-free teens," said executive director Laura Smit.

"We do programs in the high schools and the libraries ... for parents and for teens on a variety of topics," she said. "They range [from] specific topics [like] alcohol and marijuana ... [to] other parenting programs that are more general, like 'Teen Stress & Depression.'"

Programs usually consist of a 90-minute educational session and discussion with an expert on the subject. The organization also distributes a newsletter three times a year to all public middle and high school families, and to private schools in Howard County, reaching 20,300 families.

"Our last [newsletter] in the spring was talking about energy drinks like Red Bull and Rockstar," Smit said. "We're sharing a lot of information with parents that they will hopefully use to talk with their kids."

For its efforts in the community, HC DrugFree received the 2007 Horizon Foundation Health Education Award.

This fall, Smit has planned two new initiatives, "Straight Talk on Drugs," the first program designed specifically for pre-teens and middle schoolers; and "Powered by Me: Playing Safe, Fair & Sober," which addresses the use of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs.

"I'm very excited for 'Powered By Me' because ... it's something we haven't addressed," Smit said. "It's all about the pressure on athletes to perform, whether it's parents, coaches, the need to get an athletic scholarship. We're really going to promote it a lot to coaches, not only in high schools but also recreational coaches."

Michael Gimbel, a marathon runner and director of substance abuse education at Sheppard Pratt Health System, will speak at "Powered by Me" from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Oct. 4 at the Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High.

The "Straight Talk on Drugs" series will hold programs at 6:30 p.m. at the Glenwood library Oct. 25, the Miller library Nov. 1 and the Elkridge library Nov. 5. HC DrugFree will provide a free dinner. The fourth "Straight Talk on Drugs" program, at 2 p.m. Nov. 10 at the Savage library, will include a snack.

"It's important to a broad range of parents," said Tina Owens, vice chairwoman of the group's board of directors. "It provides information to parents whose children may not have drug problems, but by giving them the information it may prevent a problem."

HC DrugFree also will continue two of its most popular programs. On Nov. 8, a therapist will speak on "Teen Stress & Depression" at Atholton High, and on Dec. 5, a shock trauma nurse will host "Dangerous & Destructive Decisions: Teen Drinking, Speeding & Distracted Driving" at the central library. Both programs will start at 7 p.m.

"I want teens to question the speakers and talk to the speakers," Smit said.

The biggest event, the Teen Job and Volunteer Fair, drew 850 students last year. The next fair, scheduled for March 8 at Long Reach High, will include workshops and a Dress for Success fashion show.

"If teens are engaged and have meaningful jobs and volunteer opportunities, then they are less likely to use alcohol and other drugs," Smit said.

Smit said HC DrugFree struggles to find funding but has grown since its inception. Formerly called the Eastern Coalition Against Substance Abuse, HC DrugFree started at Oakland Mills High in 1995 as a way for parents to combat teenagers' use of illegal substances.

Previously run from Smit's home, HC Drug- Free will soon have an office at the Wilde Lake Village Center and its first Teen Advisory Council.

"Our vision is a Howard County where teens are drug-free by choice," Smit said.

Information:, 410-799-4879

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