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Choice Pass: Preventing substance abuse through real-life education

A national example for effective community reinvestment

By Richard Kadzis

Gunnison County is taking community reinvestment to a new level through a proactive, comprehensive approach to substance abuse prevention among hundreds of teenagers.

The Choice Pass Program, a proactive initiative first piloted by the Gunnison County Substance Abuse Prevention Program (GCSAPP) in 2011, teams students, parents, schools, businesses, nonprofit foundations and other community stakeholders with the Irwin Leadership Adventure Summit.

Its wide educational scope integrates a broad range of health, safety, social, environmental and personal topics that all converge into a multi-layered form of sustainability at the individual and community levels.

Choice Pass recently completed its first-ever summertime Outdoor Youth Leadership Program under the auspices of Crested Butte’s Irwin Guides, considered among the world’s most expert wilderness, environmental and survival professional organizations.

“The purpose is to provide an unparalleled skills and leadership development opportunity for highly motivated high school students,” says GCSAPP director Kari Commerford, who offers an interesting perspective. “We are building resiliency and coping skills for all of our kids, not just those at risk; because, in the end, all adolescents are inherently at risk. That’s the nature of the teenage years.”

Connecting with the natural world

In late June, six students learned under the watchful eyes of Irwin Guides about mountaineering, whitewater paddling and rock climbing with an integrated curriculum focusing on leadership, teamwork, communication, natural and cultural history, and service.

“It’s a rich outdoor curriculum that takes advantage of local mountains and rivers, providing the ideal setting to practice outdoor skills and develop leadership,” Commerford adds. “Students gain knowledge and technical skills in each area while learning to identify and manage the risk associated with these activities.”

This included learning about basic wilderness first aid and CPR, for example. But the learning wasn’t confined to daytime hours. “Evenings were spent outdoors camping to learn the art of camp-craft and ‘Leave No Trace,’ while preparing meals for the group. The enrichment curriculum ultimately transforms outdoor skills to life skills and lessons,” Commerford emphasizes.

It’s all part of a community-wide effort to create awareness for positive behavior among adolescents confronting issues such as substance abuse or bullying, instead focusing on building what Commerford calls the “social-emotional capacity” to responsibly deal with personal choices and conflict resolution.

Widely adopted, supported and accountable

The Choice Pass Program, which overarches the new Outdoor Youth Leadership Program, has grown considerably over the course of its five-year history, currently enrolling 650 students from sixth through 12th grade in both Gunnison and Crested Butte schools, representing 80 percent of the Valley’s school system population.

A cornerstone of the initiative is accountability up and down the chain of this extensive public-private partnership. Students and their parents sign a pledge that the student will remain substance-free.

“The kids get drug tested but not the parents,” explains Commerford. “The parents, however, pledge to talk to their kids about difficult topics.”

It’s proving to be an effective curb. There’s a ripple or multiplier effect that transfers to siblings, friends, schools, the community and the greater environment. One metric for success comes from a recent Colorado study ranking District 10 (Gunnison County) as only one of two areas in the state that did not see an increase in underage marijuana consumption.

But preventive measures are still needed. Prescription drug abuse, often leading to opiates such as heroin, remains a growing threat. And, of course, alcohol abuse “is consistently the biggest substance concern on a community-wide scale,” Commerford cautions.

Beyond the pledge, there is a safety net: intervention when someone makes the wrong choice or decision. “We don’t yank their Choice Pass, we sit down and try to reverse the situation, hook them up with a counselor and look carefully at what’s going on,” Commerford says. “Maybe they thought they had no other choice, or they caved in to peer pressure, or maybe they have a family issue. We have a discussion with them. We don’t give up on them.”

Incentives represent another dimension of the program that, like the pledge, provide a kind of psychological glue that keeps kids on track. Local businesses form a key piece of the partnership in providing and often subsidizing these incentives. Some of them are smaller in scale, such as the free popcorn local movie houses provide to Choice Pass members. Others, like Crested Butte Mountain Resort’s offering a $100 year-round lift pass to Choice Pass students, compared to the standard $565 for 13-17 year olds and $450 for 7-12 year olds, are larger in scale and impact.

As one high school student who took part in the Irwin Guides program this summer put it, “I joined Choice Pass for the lift ticket but I do believe that it is a good incentive to keep youths from using substances,” adding, “I learned a lot from this program and did things that I hadn’t before. The guides were great and very knowledgeable. I’ll use the skills I acquired in many adventures to come.”

Prevention vs. rehabilitation

Affordability and universal access are other hallmarks of the Choice Pass program. Regardless of household income, Choice Pass participants pay only a $5 registration fee. Beyond the incentives offered by more than 40 local businesses, the balance of the program’s cost is paid through grants from sources including the Gunnison Community Foundation, the Tony Grampsas Youth Services State of Colorado Grant, and some federal grants-in-aid. It all adds up to more than $100,000 in nonprofit and in-kind contributions, none of it from tax dollars. “It’s sustainable because it is community supported,” Commerford notes. The bottom line is, “community contributions exceed grants.”

Choice Pass, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity, is less about rehabilitation and more about overall prevention. This key attribute differentiates it from many other programs that deliver reactive treatment without understanding the root causes of the problem.

“Having teenagers out in the local Crested Butte backcountry was awesome,” says Irwin Guides risk manager and snow safety director Billy Rankin. “It was great to see highly motivated students performing in the face of challenge and risk.”

Reminiscent of but more encompassing than the Outward Bound program, the Outdoor Youth Leadership Program instills higher levels of mental and physical discipline that provide the basis for strong leadership skills and sound decision-making. The connection to the natural world and a rugged environment are also key pieces of this formula that conditions a youth focus on matters far more substantive than catching a buzz or getting into trouble with the law.

“Kayaking the upper Taylor and climbing a snow couloir on Mt. Owen were highlights, with both experiences presenting great technical challenges requiring new skills to be quickly learned and demonstrated,” Rankin reports. “We pushed everyone out of their comfort zones every day, and they thrived on the experience. They learned a lot of new skills, lived outside for a week, made connections to the outdoors while learning about themselves. That’s what it’s all about.”

Derek See teamed with Rankin to develop an outdoor program for kids that finally resulted in the Irwin Guide summer session, which ended June 29. See is a mental health and wilderness therapy specialist who works with Commerford at the GCSAPP as the project coordinator for Choice Pass.

“I have lived in Crested Butte for a long time, and I have never had a more amazing, challenging, diverse and action-packed week of outdoor adventure,” See says, noting the underlying value of how Choice Pass aligns teens and adults alike in a sort of mutual code of ethics or behavior based on healthy choices.

Grooming socially responsible leaders

“The intent of the Outdoor Youth Leadership Program was to help the kids develop leadership skills, but there are so many additional benefits to a program like this,” See believes. “The kids were together for a week camping, cooking, cleaning, and playing outside. It was necessary for them to communicate their needs, work together, and feel comfortable to ask for help when they needed it. So there are a lot of social benefits that come out of this as well.”

There was plenty of teasing, kidding, pranks and prodding among the campers, See admits. “But when we were out on the rock or on the water, it was nothing but support and encouragement for their peers.”

Each kid had a chance to serve as a Leader of the Day to oversee everything from provisions to gear. “It wasn’t a free ride,” See says. “The Irwin guides explained why they did things certain ways, so the kids could think like a guide.” Daily leaders then rafted their peers down the Gunnison River and helped them with challenging rock climbing exercises, including belaying, which is not a fun part of climbing but very important to safety.

Evening debriefs brought out areas for improvement and led to discussions on how learning in the field can be applied back home, academically, athletically and socially.

“We would then have an open discussion about various topics like ‘sense of place’ and their connection with the community and the backcountry,” See says. In the process, campers also measured their confidence vs. arrogance and how that relates to humility and gratitude.

The small group of students who piloted the first summer session with the Irwin Guides will undoubtedly grow in numbers next summer, along with the possibility that the Outdoor Youth Leadership program could be expanded to the winter months.

As another student-participant insisted, “This was a great experience. I have been in courses like this before where everything was laid out and you could hardly say that what you did was legitimate. But this course was the real deal, much more focused on instruction.”

With the strong, early adoption rate of Choice Pass among kids, parents, schools, employers and other stakeholders, as seen through more urban-centered initiatives such as Atlanta’s East Lake redevelopment project or Columbus, Ind.’s community foundation model, the Gunnison Valley approach could well become another national model for effective community reinvestment, only in more rural locations.

“We are a community that celebrates good choices,” summarizes Commerford. “This community collaboration has become a great one. We’re fortunate to have such a caring community.”

Editor’s Note: Richard Kadzis is a subject matter expert on corporate social responsibility, sustainability and community reinvestment.

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