The Southern Illinois Substance Abuse Alliance (SISAA) came to Chester Monday, March 21, to deliver an important message to District 139 students: "You matter!"
Students in sixth to 12th grades gathered in Colbert Gymnasium to hear educator Brent Swolsky promote positive living and interpersonal communication.
"When young people know that someone cares, it makes a difference. Everything we have done over the years has been done to promote care in one way or another," said Dennis Trask, Youth Prevention Coordinator for Comwell, which is a SISAA partner.
Swolsky took the floor with lots of enthusiasm and engaged students immediately by sharing his life experiences.
To demonstrate the importance of good communication skills, Swolsky had the students face each other and shake hands firmly while looking directly into the other person's eyes. Doing so, he said, forms a bond with that person and lets them know you are listening in a meaningful manner.
Swolsky then spoke to students about establishing a five-year plan for themselves. By maintaining progress checks and actively thinking about how they are living based upon their goals and expectations, it is easier for students to be successful, he said. To drive home the point, Swolsky had participants close their eyes and take part in a guided imagery exercise.
At one point in the assembly, Swolsky had volunteers come down on the floor to take part in an exercise that demonstrated how support and trust can be huge helping factors in times of need. By finding and using support systems in our lives and in the community, he said, people can survive troubled times and live successful lives.
Throughout the presentation, Swolsky stressed the importance of everyone knowing and realizing that "you matter," and because you do matter, there are many sources of support in the community and at school to assist when problems get too large to handle alone.
All students received a bright yellow wrist band inscribed with the words, "YOU MATTER" to remind them that people do care about them and are there for them in times of need.
They also received a business-sized card listing several sources of help, including the phone number for a suicide hotline and a place to call for calm talk when anonymous discussion is desired.
The Chester assembly was part of two days of programming designed by SISAA to let students know there are people who really care about them in Randolph County.
Earlier Monday, SISAA and Swolsky hosted a Teen Summit at the Sparta World Shooting Complex, where students were trained in what to look for in their fellow classmates that could lead to dangerous issues such as drug and alcohol misuse. High school students from Coulterville, Marissa, Red Bud, and Sparta attended.
On Tuesday, March 22, SISAA and Swolsky took its "You Matter" program to Coulterville, Steeleville and Sparta.
SISAA volunteers who came out to support the program in Chester included Mariah Bargman, SISAA chair; Rhonda Wilson, SISAA vicechair; Tony Glasser; Shannon Glasser; Dennis Trask; and John Reith, ComWell Recovery Coordinator.
Bargman welcomed everyone to the Chester assembly and thanked several donors who made the event possible.
Bargman said, "I want to thank the following businesses and individuals for their financial donations and overall support of these assemblies and the Teen Summit held in conjunction with the event. Those included the Red Bud Dairy Queen, Pistol City and Jim and Julie Angel, in memory of their niece Emily, whose life was cut short by drug misuse.
Swolsky has been an educator for 22 years, including time as a special-education teacher and a high school counselor. In 2019 he received the Illinois Association for Behavioral Health Prevention Leader Award.
In coordination with the program, teachers, staff and administrators received educational materials to help them prevent underage drinking and other drug use. By knowing how to identify students who are at risk and recognize the signs of alcohol and drug use, school staff members can play a powerful role in prevention.
Teachers and staff can help at-risk students by just talking with students, being a good source for information, using personal stories to help students understand issues, and by helping students build an exit plan to deal with escaping peer pressure of getting involved with drugs and alcohol.