Writer: D'Lyn Ford
ESPAÃ‘OLA - For most of her short life, an 8-year-old Española girl watched her mother and father stick needles in their arms. Her mother died of complications from heroin abuse in December 2000 and her father is now serving a life sentence for drug-related offenses.
An aunt who won legal custody of the girl last year says her niece needs a caring home environment to heal her emotional scars, and she needs positive adult supervision to avoid following in her parents' footsteps.
"She knows so much about buying and using drugs you wouldn't believe it," said the aunt. "We need to erase that from her head and fill up her mind and spirit with constructive influences."
But both the aunt and her husband work during the day, and they fear their niece won't get appropriate after-school care with babysitters. So they enrolled her in the 4-H After-School Program that New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service offers at select Rio Arriba County elementary schools.
"We're so grateful, because this program gives her a well-organized, structured environment where she does her homework and gets involved in lots of fun, educational activities that help build confidence in herself," the aunt said. "It's perfect for her."
The program, which began last year, provides free after-school care for first- through sixth-graders in communities where kids are at risk of drug and alcohol abuse. The curriculum, similar to NMSU's 4-H Share/Care in other counties, combines substance abuse prevention education with traditional 4-H activities that build self-esteem and social skills.
"We want to give kids the skills and inner strength to resist drugs rather than teach them to just say no," said Roberta Rios, county Extension program director and home economist. "We use a variety of hands-on activities, games and 4-H club programs to reinforce communication and decision-making skills while building children's self-confidence. Those are the key elements they need to avoid negative choices in life."
Funded by a three-year, $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, the program is winning praise from parents, teachers, and school administrators in Rio Arriba County, which has New Mexico's worst record of substance abuse and one of the worst in the nation.
"This program is sorely needed here, and it's having a major impact on these kids," said Leroy Martinez, principal at Hernandez Elementary in Española, where 32 children participated last year. "Many of these children have family members or know people with alcohol and drug problems and it helps them deal with that in healthy ways. I've seen a night-to-day change in some of these kids."
About 180 children participated in the program last year, and a similar number are expected to enroll this year at Fairview, Ojo Caliente, Hernandez, and Chama elementary schools, all located in districts with high rates of drug and alcohol abuse, said Desaree Whitfield, program coordinator.
Pre- and post-program tests of last year's students show an average 17.5 percent knowledge gain by the children in understanding the effects of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and inhalants, and an average 24 percent knowledge gain in recognizing the difference between legal and illegal drugs, Whitfield said.
"Our goal was only a 10 percent knowledge gain, and the Department of Health considers even a 4 percent gain an acceptable impact in these types of programs," she said. "In some schools like Hernandez Elementary, the gain was almost 32 percent."
Such knowledge is critical since so many of the children are exposed to drug abuse in their communities. "We're talking about first-graders who say they've found syringes in their backyard," Whitfield said. "One of our students has an older brother who died of a drug overdose. It's something that affects these kids directly."
Just as important, teachers say the kids show substantial improvement in behavior and grades, thanks to the emphasis on building social and academic skills.
"I've seen a lot of these kids really shore up their self-confidence," said Ines Gutierrez, a second-grade teacher at Fairview who supervises the after-school program. "They have such low self-esteem, and this really helps them build it up and blossom."
Kids at all the schools have formed 4-H clubs, and they participate in projects that teach community service, citizenship and leadership skills. At one school, children staged a "Kick Butts Day," hanging up anti-smoking posters and talking with other students about the health risks.
They also watch videos and participate in group discussion about conflict resolution and cultural diversity, among other themes. Many afternoons are filled with creative projects like painting and pottery making. Nutritious snacks are served daily, and teachers provide health, nutrition and physical education.
The kids love it.
"It's pretty cool," said the 8-year-old who lives with her aunt.
The girl proudly held up a chile decoration that she made in the program. "They let us play outside and they give us time to do our homework. And I get to do other stuff like making this chile ristra."
Her aunt says the girl's newfound self-esteem is nearly palpable. "After she makes things, you can just see the pride beaming out of her."
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