In the final weeks of school, 900 fourth and fifth grade students from Fayette County Schools took a trip to the Fayette County Park for Project: Adventure.

In collaboration with the Fayette County Board of Education, Project: Adventure’s purpose was to connect kids to experiences which would offer them healthy choices for their evenings, weekends and summers, times when risky behavior is most likely to occur.

The Youth Program Action Committee of the Fayette County Substance Abuse Task Force designed Project: Adventure as the area’s first step in a direction that could lead kids away from questionable choices toward healthy activities. The event allowed local programs to showcase educational and fun experiences that many students had never encountered.

Organizers grouped volunteers, representing approximately 30 organizations, into stations to which students rotated throughout the day. Each station had a cluster of hands-on activities demonstrating the variety of things there are to do for kids and their families in Fayette County. Project: Adventure offered students a chance to fish, kayak, stand-up paddleboard, play soccer, knock down bowling pins, build a shelter, walk in the woods, try out STEM games, balance on a slack-line, strum a guitar and more.

How did the kids and teachers react to Project: Adventure?

“One student who is usually withdrawn and sullen told me it was the most fun she’d had in a long time.”

“While exploring in the woods, one girl actually spent the whole time touching every tree. She said, ‘I’ve never been in the woods before.’”

“As I sit here and reflect on the day’s events, my heart just gets fuller and fuller as I think about each of my kiddos… several stepped outside their comfort zones to try water sports, but I could not be more proud of them than I was watching every one of them walk the slack rope! One almost cried because he was so proud to make it all the way across.”

“Our fifth graders had a great time!” said one teacher. “I can’t stress how much this opportunity meant to me and my students. I think it is very beneficial and can be such a wonderful teaching tool.’

An organizer, Natasha Green, a prevention specialist for Community Connections, said, “We were looking for data that represented what kids are interested in doing and what barriers there may be to participation. This information will help in moving forward with prevention initiatives to bring about environmental change regarding youth substance abuse. ”

“It is the support from our community that made Project: Adventure a success.” said Teresa Workman, committee chair. “Introducing these students to the many activities offered in Fayette County only marks the beginning of this prevention initiative.”

Iceland’s recent success in drastically reducing teen substance abuse provided the inspiration for Project: Adventure. In Iceland, a high percentage of students in their early teens had tried or were actively using cigarettes and alcohol by age 14. Researchers there speculated that early intervention which would involve kids in meaningful, self-chosen activities, led by responsible adults, before they got into drugs and alcohol would prevent them from experimenting with illicit substances at a young age.

Youth in Iceland is a study through which 14- to 16-year olds were given opportunities to select and participate in a multitude of activities outside school. The kids could choose things like chess, music, arts and sports. In the study, it was important that the kids were allowed to try and participate in a variety of things that piqued their interests. The study lasted for 15 years and in that span of time the data showed that Iceland had nearly eliminated alcohol and tobacco use among teens.

“You don’t have to dive into research studies to realize that kids are built for hands-on activities which are fun, educational and stimulating,” said Esther Morey, an organizer who leads the popular Coda Mountain Academy in Fayetteville. “There are an abundance of activities in our area; however, kids, parents or their caregivers may not be aware of these opportunities. For example, it’s amazing how many kids have not heard live string music, do not know what stand-up paddleboarding is or that you can program Legos to be robots. All of this and more is right here in our backyard.”

“I constantly hear our teens say that there is nothing to do here in Fayette County,” said Katie Johnson, a health educator for New River Health Association and one of the organizers behind the project. “And that may be the case if there is no one to introduce them to the variety of activities that are so closely available to them. We have not done a good job, as a community, to connect our local youth to the gold mine of experiences and adventure that surrounds us in the county.

“Many of our youth feel alienated from the steady flow of paddlers, bikers, and climbers that drive right by our houses, headed into the world class playground that is our backyard. People come here from all over the world to play outside. They escape their day-to-day grind and relieve stress with a reprieve in the woods. Our kids need to learn that this is here for them too. Activities like these teach kids to focus better than any adult standing in front of a classroom ever could. If we give our kids ownership of their learning, then not only do we raise a happier and healthier generation, but we also create a more resilient, vibrant and empowered workforce.”

Veronica Crosier with the New River Gorge Learning Co-op’s Camp Drift-A-Bit, an organizer, said, “Anyone at Project: Adventure saw these kids come alive. They have an innate curiosity and desire to learn. They’ve shown us that. Now, through research, legislation, whatever action it takes, we must remove the barriers we’ve identified as holding these children back. Project: Adventure is just the beginning. Our committee is already gearing up for the next phase of this important work.”

To learn more about the experiences and organizations offering kids’ activities, visit projectadventurefayette.com. A directory of Project: Adventure presenters is online and other youth programs may register to be included in the directory.

To get involved in the Fayette County Substance Abuse Task Force, contact Carri Strunk at Carri.Strunk@nrhawv.org or 304-619-2126.

To learn more about the Iceland Project, visit theatlanic.com: How Iceland Got Teens to Say No to Drugs by Emma Young.

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