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'Let’s Talk About It’ substance abuse conference

‘Change things by being a leader’‘
New York Teacher

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During the first “Let’s Talk About It” conference on substance abuse, students f

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Teacher Cynthia Olsen-Dinkins (left) and school counselor Mary Castelo accompani
Middle and high school students heard what it’s like to struggle with addiction from young people not much older than themselves at a conference on substance abuse at UFT headquarters in Manhattan on May 29.

For one 13-year-old student at IS 259 in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the story of Chris, now five years sober, left a deep impression. “I was most surprised at how young he started,” she said. “He was 14.”

Another 13-year-old from Preparatory Academy for Writers in Springfield Gardens, Queens, said he was impressed by Paloma, the presenter at his workshop, who turned her life around. “You can change things by being a leader, not a follower,” he said.

They were among the more than 800 students discussing substance abuse, recovery and resisting peer pressure at “Let’s Talk About It,” sponsored by the UFT’s Member Assistance Program (MAP); the Seafield Center, an addiction treatment center on Long Island; and Road Recovery, a nonprofit organization that provides young people with workshops and peer support to combat addiction and peer pressure.

“This is important to us,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew in welcoming students to Shanker Hall. “I grew up in a generation when all we were told was, ‘Just say no.’ That didn’t work out well for my generation. We want to talk about things.”

Kathleen McCarthy, a teacher at PS 207 in Flatlands, Brooklyn, took all of her 7th- and 8th-graders — 251 students — to the daylong conference. “They’re going into high school and will have new challenges,” McCarthy said. “They need the tools to cope. Without those tools, we’re not setting them up for success.”

MAP Director Tina Puccio said her program wanted to “give students and UFT members an opportunity to open up the conversation about addiction earlier without feeling stigmatized.”

Students heard a performance by Road Recovery, a band allied with the organization of the same name. Several of the band members led student workshops in the afternoon to answer questions about the toll of addiction on their lives and how they found their way back to health. A neuroscientist, Dr. Steven Dewey, shared the latest research into young people and addiction, including information on vaping, marijuana and even video games.

Teacher Cynthia Olsen-Dinkins and school counselor Mary Castelo from JHS 227 in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, accompanied 16 7th-graders. “We asked teachers to send us student advocates who can speak their mind about drug use and prevention,” Olsen-Dinkins said, so they can share the message with their peers. “Children tend to listen to children,” Castelo said.

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