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Guest Post: Our Goal: Keeping Young People Away from Drug Hot Spots

Roxanna De Soto is ONDCP's featured Advocate for Action working with the HIDTA program to educate high-risk youth and promote healthy lifestyles.

Every individual has a unique life story. Some come from families with significant economic limitations yet experience love, faith, and emotional stability. We encourage these fortunate young people to act as positive role models and help their peers avoid drugs.

The lives of others are marked by abuse, violence, hunger, fatigue. With no one to make sure they attend school, they fall behind. Society labels them as useless. They drop out of school and spiral downward. Some are recruited by drug dealers.

With high rates of unemployment and rampant consumerism in Puerto Rico, too many youth turn to drugs, and some become dealers themselves. This is why keeping young people away from drug hot spots is the primary goal of the Alliance for a Drug-Free Puerto Rico (Alianza para un Puerto Rico sin Drogas), where I have worked as executive director for 20 years. Development Officer Raquel L. Muñiz and Social Worker Melissa Frontera complete our team.

The drug threat in Puerto Rico is substantial, due largely to the island’s strategic location in the Caribbean between the producing countries and the consumer markets. Drug sales generate the income to obtain the goods many young people covet. Drug dealers occupy the top of the social ladder, showing off their wealth and power with cash, guns, cars, expensive jewelry, and women.

The Alliance for a Drug-Free Puerto Rico is a private non-profit organization with a mission to reduce drug use and drug trafficking through prevention efforts. One such effort was Prevention Power, a project developed by Alianza in 2011 and sponsored by the Puerto Rico/US Virgin Islands High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA).

Alianza recognizes that early interventions have a positive impact in deterring adolescents from behaviors that can lead to substance use. These interventions focus on strengthening protective factors and reducing high-risk factors, particularly in school settings. Informed by science-based research, Prevention Power addressed key areas such as peer relationships, communication, assertiveness, and drug resistance skills and was designed to keep adolescents fully engaged from the start.

The project’s objectives were to:

  • Increase awareness of the negative consequences of violence, illegal drug use, and trafficking;
  • Develop life skills that enable participants in the decision-making process; and
  • Develop prevention leaders who will promote healthy lifestyles. 

Prevention Power was implemented in three Puerto Rican public high schools located in zones of high drug-related activity. In the first stage of the project, students participated in workshops that addressed themes such as Decision Making and Problem Solving; Developing a Sense of Belonging; Dealing with Peer Pressure and Anger Management; and Drug Resistance Skills.

In addition to strengthening protective factors and reducing risk factors, the workshops served as a foundation for the next stage of the project: development of prevention ads for television and radio. The radio ads -- Fruits of My Labor and Lights, Camera, Action – and three television ads (Fruits of My Labor, Pills, and Values) will have a lasting positive impact on local youth as they continue to be broadcast throughout Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

To prepare for this experience, students attended workshops on script writing and learned about the various stages involved in video production. Together they developed the stories and the dialogue, then took part in the filming process. Some students did the acting, while others worked on the storyline, set design, props, and audio. A private company participated in the filming of the ads.

This year, we have replicated the Prevention Power project in other schools and even added an after-school program that offers positive options as extracurricular activities, including dance, music, painting, and drama, as well as vocational courses such as jewelry-making and barber classes. These activities provide plenty of positive, productive alternatives to young people who might otherwise spend their time on the streets.