Pictured Above: Riverhead Youth Coalition members ask Meet & Greet attendees to guess the answers to questions about youth substance use.

A hefty number of new students has joined the Riverhead Youth Coalition this year, joining a peer group of role models for how to live drug and alcohol-free lives in high school. 

But one of those students’ top concerns is one that has rapidly become a societal norm — vaping.

The students shared their work at the annual Meet and Greet sponsored by the Riverhead Community Coalition for Safe and Drug-Free Youth at the Riverhead Firehouse April 11.

The Riverhead Youth Coalition was formed by the Community Coalition four years ago in an effort to get students involved in spreading the word about the dangers of youth substance use. The junior high and high school students involved in the coalition recruit graduating sixth graders at the Pulaski Street School. 

This past year, they recruited 40 incoming seventh graders, who have spent this school year recording public service announcements about the dangers of substance use, educating the public about the legal penalties of providing substances to minors, learning about the ways students access substances in the community and volunteering at medication take-back days.

“We sign a contract that we will not use drugs or alcohol,” junior Max Solarz told the crowd at the Meet and Greet. “We like to walk the walk and talk the talk.”

Much of the students’ work is based on surveys conducted at Riverhead High School, in which students share statistics that might sadden people who are concerned about kids.

Coalition Coordinator Kelly Miloski told the crowd that the use of e-cigarettes, in which a nicotine  oil is vaporized and inhaled, commonly known as ‘vaping,’ “is an epidemic in our country.”

“I’ve never seen a substance use increase this much, ever,” she told the crowd. “Nearly 30 places in Riverhead sell vape products.”

She added that 22 percent of Riverhead eighth graders and 40 percent of 12th graders have tried vaping, compared with the national average of 6 and 16 percent, respectively.

The Youth Coalition has met with county legislators in support of banning flavored vaping liquids, with flavors like mango and pop rocks that are designed to entice young users.

RYC members Viktoria Skobodzinski and Imani Thomas.
Sophomore RYC members Viktoria Skobodzinski and Imani Thomas.

Many of the youth members present said they were most concerned about vaping.

“This is a big topic for RYC. We see e-cigarettes every day,” said sophomore Viktoria Skobodzinski. “The Riverhead Middle School asked us to give a presentation to the parents of middle school students on vaping. We truly wanted to show parents how vaping affects their kids.”

Seventh grader Mirna Queley Canal, a new Coalition member, said the most prevalent problem she sees is vaping. She also volunteers with the coalition at medication take-back days at Peconic Bay Medical Center. To date, the coalition’s medication take-back days have collected more than 6,000 pounds of unwanted medications.

The next medication take-back day at PBMC will be held on Saturday, April 27 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in conjunction with the DEA’s National Take-Back Day.

RYC members Daniella Flores and Mirna Queley Canal.
New seventh grade RYC members Daniella Flores and Mirna Queley Canal.

Seventh grader Simon Lucarelli has volunteered with the Coalition to monitor public events like the August Polish Town Fair, letting coalition members know if he sees people drinking outside of designated areas, where people who are old enough to drink have to have a wristband and drink out of plastic cups. He said he’s seen people drinking out of bottles in paper bags at the fair.

Sophomore Imani Thomas has been working with the Coalition’s peer leadership program, educating Pulaski Street School kids about the dangers of substance use.

“It’s such a great feeling walking in knowing that the kids actually want to know what’s going on,” she said. 

The coalition has also been tackling youth drinking — their surveys show that 27 percent of tenth graders at RHS are drinking, up from the national average of 19 percent, and 46.7 percent of seniors report that they’ve had alcohol at someone else’s house with the permission of parents in that house.

New RYC members Simon Lucarelli and Natalie Tucci.
New seventh grade RYC members Simon Lucarelli and Natalie Tucci.

“Before you panic, it may be just a few houses where a bunch of kids are going there, but it’s illegal if you know about it and it happens in your house, said Ms. Miloski.

“We live in a society where alcohol use has been normalized, but it kills more people than other drugs,” she said, adding that it’s a goal of the coalition to delay the onset of alcohol use.

Despite the rapidly increasing social acceptance of marijuana use in recent years, the Coalition’s message on marijuana is also about delaying the onset of use. 

Ms. Miloski pointed out that research has been very clear that marijuana use is detrimental to developing brains.

“Youth marijuana use is never ok,” she said, adding that the active compound in marijuana, THC, “primes the brain” to be more receptive to drugs like heroin.

Thirty-one percent of RHS seniors reported that they’d used marijuana in the past 30 days.

The coalition, which in February was awarded a Coalition of Excellence award by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, plans to continue to work in the upcoming year to reduce youth access to substances, and collect data to implement effective strategies, said Ms. Miloski.

“We want to change the norms,” she said.

“We focus on prevention,”  said Felicia Scocozza, the Executive Director of Riverhead CAP, with oversees the Coalition. “Three-quarters of adults in substance abuse programs initiated use before age 17…. We want to decrease youth access and availability.”

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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