Drug use among teens is a challenge in all communities and a significant barrier to their success after graduation. National surveys indicate that over 15% of 12th graders and 8% of 8th graders have used non-prescribed addictive substances, with smaller cities and rural areas recently experiencing the greatest increases.  All too often these actions and addictions compromise the futures of our teens, cause suffering to families, and present a major challenge for schools and community health services providers.

The Ithaca PlanIn 2016, Ithaca Mayor Myrick released The Ithaca Plan: A Public Safety Approach to Drugs and Drug Policy, which was based on recommendations developed by a group of community health and policy experts. These wide-ranging proposals did not include youth voices and perspectives; this was the impetus to launch the Youth Voices on Substance Abuse program.


This program enrolled over 100 high school students in studying key Human Rights documents and literature related to Substance Abuse. Building on Sustainable Development Goal #3, Good Health and Well-Being, they researched issues related to addictive substances and the Substance Use pandemic. Articles and websites – some factual, some biased – formed the basis for mentor- or teacher-guided discussions to help them separate facts from opinions. Working with their teachers and with informed experts who came into classrooms, participants developed fact-based perspectives and designed projects to raise awareness among their peers and also provide direct support for local service organizations.

Policy and health services experts invited into their classrooms included Mayor Svante Myrick, who shared perspectives as both a community leader and a person whose family had been affected, Michelle McElroy from Southern Tier Aids Program, and Stacy Cangelosi from the Alcohol and Drug Council of Tompkins County. These provided students’ opportunities to get broader perspectives on the challenges facing their community and services available, and to seek information relative to questions and concerns they had.

Mayor & Gert with NR kids

Stacy Cangelosi outlines community services and critical unmet needs, especially for youth, related to substance use.

For several participants this issue was very personal, having affected their families, friends, or themselves. Especially evident was the large gap between their perspectives and those of adults on what information their schools had (NOT) provided and the difficulty in obtaining services that might have helped their families.

The outreach projects these young people chose were diverse, and again often reflected their personal experiences. Some wrote essays and songs; one made a video of interviews he had with peers where the questions asked were: what were you taught and what do you now wish you had known earlier about addiction? One of the more tangible items produced was a poster that provided local contact numbers for support services. This was copied and posted in the lavatories in local middle and high schools. Another was a student-oriented short brochure about the known effects of narcotics on the still developing central nervous system of teens.

Poster based on Wren Martinson’s design.

Brochure for teens prepared by Erin Harrigan.

Other outreach projects raised money and gathered requested supplies that were delivered to local service agencies and shelters.

This program became widely known in the community, and students were interviewed both live on several radio shows and by print media reporters.

The program culminated with participants invited to present a Public Briefing held under the auspices of the United Nations Department of Public Information at the UN headquarters. Joined by Mayor Myrick, Michelle McElroy, and several teachers, 18 students from the program presented their perspectives on the Substance Abuse pandemic and recommended approaches to both prevention and treatment aspects, especially as it affects young persons. The event was attended by over 200 UN and New York community health and policy workers, and was webcast to 1200 international audiences. A video recording of the briefing is available at DPI/NGO Briefing on Youth Voices on Substance Abuse: A Guide for Empowerment and Action Webcast and photographs taken by the UN staff are on Facebook Photos.

Participating youth, invited experts, and teachers after completing their presentations at the United Nations to local and, via teleconferencing, international audiences.

Participating youth, invited experts, and teachers after completing their presentations at the United Nations to local and, via teleconferencing, international audiences.

The final project event was a community-wide celebration of youth citizenship in action, held at the Hangar Theater in Ithaca, NY.  Students gave their UN presentations or made posters highlighting their peer-information and community outreach projects.


Community Foundations These successes would not have been possible without generous support from the Community Foundation of Tompkins County and the Lane Family Fund.