By Sosie Casteel
For the first time since the closures in 2020, San Clemente High School’s Wellness & Prevention Coalition (WPC) had the opportunity to attend CADCA’s National Leadership Forum in National Harbor, Maryland.
With funding from the Centers for Disease Control Drug Free Community grant and scholarships from Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, the Orange County Substance Abuse Prevention Network, Community Outreach Alliance and San Clemente Rotary, nine SCHS students were able to go fully funded.
The students arrived in National Harbor late evening on Jan. 31 and began their exciting week of leadership, education and fun.
WPC Prevention Director Lauren Gallegos supervised and organized the group’s activities throughout the week, including the sightseeing expedition the first day. With a few free hours, the group was able to visit the Capitol, National Mall, Washington Monument and National Art Gallery before heading back to the hotel for the introductory ceremonies.
On the first night of the forum, CADCA held a youth meet-and-greet, allowing our group to interact with youth from coalitions across the country. As the forum hosts like-minded youth, it was easy to make friends and share ideas with other youth coalitions throughout the rest of the week.
During the forum, each member of the WPC had freedom to choose which seminars they would like to attend based on their interests. The forum offered a wide range of options covering drug prevention, mental health support and cultural competency.
One of the evenings, our group gathered with other California coalition members to discuss the game plan for virtual Capitol Hill Day. Normally, coalition members have the opportunity to schedule meetings with their district representatives on Capitol Hill; however, due to closures, the meetings were moved to Zoom.
The planning prompted an intense discussion about the core of drug prevention and mental health awareness. Many of the WPC Youth had the chance to use their voices to describe issues in the San Clemente community that they wanted to speak about on Capitol Hill Day.
The morning of Capitol Hill Day, the group attended a morning plenary, where they heard from members of congress and were encouraged to speak openly and honestly with their representatives.
The WPC then broke off to join the virtual Capitol Hill meetings. During the meeting with a representative from Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office, SCHS senior Nicole DeSantos spoke about the lack of awareness among youth about the consequences of opioid use.
Other issues discussed included mental health support in schools, and several parents from California coalitions shared stories of losing their children to accidental fentanyl poisoning, a growing concern nationwide and in Orange County.
During the meeting with a representative from Mike Levin’s office, senior Mia Arnwine and junior Anya Preisler shared their struggles during the pandemic, the benefits of mental health support, and the lack of mental health accommodations in California schools.
That evening, the forum gave youth an opportunity to unwind and have fun with a youth talent show. Arnwine took first place, winning a $100 gift card and full scholarship to CADCA’s mid-year forum in Orlando.
Our youth coalition gained so much from this experience, from the opportunity to advocate for mental health and substance use prevention in our community, to the informative workshops and learning opportunities.
“It taught me how to be a leader in my community to advocate for staying above the influence,” Arnwine said. “It has also taught me how to be confident within myself to be a leader and to show up and show out.”
“I really enjoyed being a part of an event with hundreds of other people my age trying to make their community better,” senior Josh McDonald said. “Plus, it was a hundred times better, since I had close friends with me that I felt I could do anything with.”
The close bonds between the members of the WPC Youth Coalition was the icing on the cake. The laughs shared and memories made complemented the powerful conversations about mental health and drug prevention to create the perfect trip to kick off WPC Youth Coalition activities in 2022.
Sosie Casteel is a senior at San Clemente High and the president of the Wellness & Prevention Youth Coalition. She is also head editor of the school’s newspaper, Triton Times.