By Diane Eckert
Each February substance abuse prevention coalitions from across the country take part in Capitol Hill Day as part of the national Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) leadership conference. It is always a highlight when more than 2,000 strong of us meet with our elected members of Congress to update them on our prevention work in their communities.
This year the Unified Prevention Coalition of Fairfax County (UPC) proudly brought 10 of our UPC Youth Council members and their adult sponsors with us. It was the first time that these high school students had ever been in our nation’s congressional halls -- despite living just 10 miles on the other side of the Potomac – and their voices were heard.
They joined the chorus with other coalitions in the hallways of Congress as we spoke with one voice for healthy communities and the need to focus on prevention. They proudly showed off their newly designed T-shirts with the statement “It Takes YOU To Create A Better Youth.” As our students know, all of us have a role in making our communities safe, healthy and drug-free for our children, youth and young adults.
UPC has participated in Capitol Hill Day for more than a decade. But this year was one of the most rewarding and motivating experiences for our coalition members.
UPC was honored to be asked by CADCA to present U.S. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) with its Congressional Leadership Award to recognize outstanding members of Congress who have championed legislation and strategies to protect and enhance the federal role in substance abuse prevention, education, treatment and research. The day of our visit Wolf announced that he was again supporting bipartisan legislation to reauthorize the STOP (Sober Truth on Preventing) Underage Drinking Act legislation.
UPC received a STOP grant in 2012 that provides close to $50,000 to our coalition for piloting the use of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended screening assessment to help pediatric health care providers routinely screen school children with the goal of reducing underage drinking by youth.
“Many parents don’t realize the enormity of this problem and often underestimate the prevalence of alcohol use by teens,” Wolf said. “We must continue our efforts in order to protect our children against the alcohol industry’s aggressive marketing of its products that encourage children to buy and use alcohol.”
U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) joined us with three of his visiting coalitions, and we made an impressive group of about 45 prevention leaders and youth as we presented Congressman Wolf with his CADCA award and thanked him for his long-time support of federal funding that helps us to do our work to prevent youth alcohol and other drug use.
Our Youth Council and adult members also had the privilege of meeting with U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), a long-time supporter of UPC since his days as chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. Our students had an important lesson about Capitol Hill meetings with a congressman: When space is scarce, as it is in these beautiful old buildings, you meet in the hallway.
Rep. Connolly joined us outside his office, provided photo opportunities for all of the youth and then talked with the students about their concerns. Several youth noted the increase they are seeing in marijuana use and the easy availability of prescription medicines like Adderall and Vicodin. They shared their upcoming involvement as youth leaders for the UPC Prevention Conference for middle school students and parents coming up April 13 at Falls Church High School.
Our students saw first-hand the importance our congressional leaders place on meeting with their constituents and the attention paid to them as the voice of youth in their community. They left feeling respected, listened to and empowered to continue their work as the UPC Youth Council.
Diane Eckert, a recognized prevention leader at the local, state and national level, is the executive director of the Unified Prevention Coalition of Fairfax County.
The Unified Prevention Coalition of Fairfax County is a nonprofit organization with more than 50 community partners working together to keep youth and young adults safe and drug-free.