By Charlotte Albright
Mandy Pike and her step-son Isaac relax with their dog in their Lyndonville living room. They participated in a drug and alcohol abuse prevention program at Lyndon Town School called PROSPER.
Surveys show that about 14 percent of young Vermonters try alcohol before they turn 13, and about 7 percent in that age group try pot. Those percentages rise rapidly as kids get older, and by then it can be too late to change their unhealthy behaviors.
That’s why two schools in Vermont are trying to prevent drug and alcohol abuse with a program called PROSPER.
Short for Promoting School-Community-University-Partnerships to Enhance Resilience, PROSPER is a highly structured extra-curricular course for parents and their middle school children. It doesn’t aim for total abstinence; the more realistic goal is to delay the onset of drug and alcohol use until the teenage brain is mature enough to consider the consequences.
Ellen Rowe, of the University of Vermont Extension Service, brought PROSPER to the Lyndon Town School’s sixth and seventh graders two years ago.
“Parents need the skills to deal with these children that are now moving into adulthood. They need a little more independence, but yet they need parameters of behavior,” Rowe said as she loaded materials into an elevator at the Lyndon Town Schools’ summer training program for facilitators.
A new $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will extend the Lyndon program for five more years and add another program in Bennington. A lot of the money is spent on food: PROSPER facilitators serve dinner to parents and their children. Then they watch videos dramatizing risky situations, such as an underage drinking party. Frank discussions follow between young people and adults. Some of the PROSPER families are struggling with substance abuse, but for others, problems are not so serious — yet.
“Parents need the skills to deal with these children that are now moving into adulthood. They need a little more independence, but yet they need parameters of behavior.” – Ellen Rowe, University of Vermont Extension Service
Meet Mandy Pike. She lives in a small house in Lyndonville with her husband and three kids, including her step-son Isaac. Sitting with him and their dog in a cozy living room, Mandy explained why she, her step-son and his father attended Lyndon’s PROSPER meetings. (She now represents parents on the board of advisors.)
It started with a few problems that were creating tension in their blended household.
Last year, in sixth grade, Isaac started shirking school work and getting into verbal sparring matches with friends. Mandy Pike says she and Isaac also argued when he balked at homework. She had little patience for that.
“My first reaction was, ‘You need to do it. This is the time to do it. This is really the only time you have to do it and it has to be done by the deadline for school, so let’s get started on it,’” Pike recalled.
But hurling an ultimatum rarely worked. In PROSPER, the Pike family learned better strategies. When they discovered Isaac wasn’t doing his homework because he didn’t understand it, they found academic help. No small thing, because kids who fail in school may skip classes, and that’s often when they get into bigger trouble. Now, if an older boy approached Isaac with beer, pot or drugs, he says he would not be tempted. He would be a little scared, though.
In PROSPER, one Lyndonville family learned better strategies for addressing problems with their son. When they discovered he wasn’t doing his homework because he didn’t understand it, they found academic help.
“’Cause I wouldn’t know what to say because it’s never happened before and hopefully it never does,” Isaac said.
“One of my questions would be, should I tell on this guy?” I asked him.
“I would,” he said tentatively.
Who do you tell?
“Probably my parents or the kid’s parents,” he answered more confidently.
His mom smiled at him. That’s what she hoped to hear.
It’s too soon to track results from Vermont sessions, except for evaluations showing generally satisfied families. Nationwide data suggests that PROSPER participants are less likely to use drugs or alcohol than their peers. No after-school program is a panacea, organizers admit. But they say it can make a difference if families are open to changing the way they talk about the risks of modern adolescence.