4-H is stepping up to the opioid epidemic with a unique approach, working with teens to research and create an action plan. WSU’s Center for Rural Opioid Prevention, Treatment, and Recovery (CROP-TR) received a grant from SAMSHA to implement this program in three Washington state counties and chose Clallam as a site.

WSU Extension’s 4-H Coordinator Melanie Greer and WSU’s Nutrition Educator Vicki Wegener teamed up to facilitate the program using a combination of 4-H Youth Participatory Action Research curriculum developed by Oregon State U, opioid and additional resources from CROP-TR, and a series of local subject matter experts.

The group of teens were from Peninsula College’s Upward Bound program. Upward Bound students are young adults who are first generation college bound. With this new collaborate partner the YPAR project got its footing.

The teens came to the class knowing it was about opioids in the community and were asked what they wanted to learn about opioid use and misuse in the county and how they wanted to learn. We started with some brief introductions to the topic using videos recommended by the CROP-TR.

From there, the teens decided as a group what they wanted to research about opioid use and misuse. The teens decided how to do the research, they compiled the research and chose how to disseminate it.

The Youth Participatory Action Research Curriculum was used to help move the teens through each step of a group research project. They research question they chose was, “What is Addiction and How Does it Relate to Trauma? How Can Resilience Science Reduce that Risk?”

For five weeks, the group met four days a week. Class time was spent immersed in the subject of addiction, treatment and strategizing about solutions. WSU staff brought in eight presenters that came to educate them on topics such as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), Trauma, the treatments of opioid addiction and about Medically-Assisted Treatment (MAT) clinics. They learned about how trauma can be direct and indirect, individualized or systemic.

The students created a survey which went it out to hundreds of community members and had 35 responses. The responses were full of depth and honesty. It surprised the students, the depth of the responses.

People seemed to open up all about their addiction experiences, whether it was their own or of a loved one. They seemed to tap into a need for people to tell their difficult stories.

“Children are growing up without their parents more and more these days due to the Opiate Epidemic,” a survey responder noted.

“I believe it is stigmatized and they are real people from all economic backgrounds being effected. There are more deaths due to overdoses then previous years. I personally have a child who is addicted to heroin and fentanyl. I get to see how its destroying my amazing child’s life and all I can do is give my grandkids a safe place to stay and loving place to grow up, and pray that both of their parents find their way to recovery.”

Several survey respondents credited Drug Court, 12-step programs and MAT centers with helping them overcome their misuse.

Survey results appeared to reinforce what students were hearing from local experts. That prior trauma is major indicator of addiction. They needed to focus on both sides of the coin how to best help people who are currently misusing and how to help create an atmosphere in the county to minimize the effects of trauma.

We all experience traumatic events at some point in our lives. Some more than others, and when traumatic experiences are longer term and integrated into a child’s daily life it can influence that child’s life trajectory. The teen participants learned that the best way to counteract the effects of traumatic experiences is to have resilience factors. The more the better.

Kaelan Gilman from the Clallam Resilience Project related it to a teeter-totter. If we weigh down the resilience side it becomes heavier and can outweigh the effects of the traumatic experiences.

Resilience factors

What are resilience factors? The teens learned about many resilience factors, sometimes also called protective factors, including having social support systems like mentors and good friends, the ability to regulate emotions, empathy, responsibility, the ability to work as a team, having choices, and many others.

After weeks of learning all they could in such a short amount of time, the teens created their call to action, what they want to see happen in our community:

• Comprehensive health education from an early age

• More resources for mental health and better school funding

• More funding for prevention and resilience building programs

• Trauma informed education for everyone who works with youth directly or indirectly

• More mental health counselors in schools

• Education on what healthy relationships look like

• Education for doctors on addiction and appropriate opioid uses

The students completed the project with an informational display that can be found in the lobby at the Court House in Port Angeles as well as a slideshow that is available at extension.wsu.edu/clallam/4h/youth-advocates-for-health-ya4-h.

This program was a first time partnership between 4-H and Upward Bound in Clallam county and has kicked off a new series of collaborations. Keep an eye out for future updates.

Lisa Bridge is a communications staffer for WSU Clallam County Extension. Melanie Greer is 4-H Program Coordinator for WSU Clallam County Extension.