Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Oregon National Guard program creates 'paradigm shift' for Oregon's middle school students

President Ronald Reagan’s approach to drug education in the 1980s was “Just say no.”

But according to an Oregon City middle school teacher, that philosophy just doesn’t work today.

“It’s not enough,” says Ron Weisdorfer. “There needs to be education behind it.”

That is why a group of dedicated individuals from the Oregon National Guard’s Counterdrug Support Program are visiting with 7th and 8th graders at Gardiner Middle School over the next several days, teaching life-skills to the kids in what is known as The Guard Adventure Program.

Sgt. Karissa Gratreak, who is with the Oregon Army National Guard’s 82nd Brigade, works fulltime as a Drug Demand Reduction NCO with the Counterdrug Program. She said the kids might already be practicing important skills such as teamwork, effective communication and cooperation, but they just don’t realize how important they are yet.

“We’re going to bring it to their attention and help them realize these life skills as a group,” Gratreak said.

The Guard Adventure Program was designed as a way to supplement and compliment existing drug education and prevention programs in the state. It provides an adventure-based prevention program focused on developing healthy life styles for Oregon’s youth.

The curriculum is based on research in the area of developing assets and risk protection. The goal is to help youth develop personal and social skills in an effective manner, and to give students an opportunity to practice newly acquired skills through positive peer interaction.

The group visits schools based on requests by administrators. There is no cost to the school for the 10-day program.

Gardiner has approximately 600 children, ages 11-14. The children are mostly from Oregon City proper, and parts of Beaver Creek. Children are divided up into groups of about 20 kids, with each group cycling through the day’s classes one after the other. The team will sometimes administrate up to five classes per day throughout the two-week period.

Prior to the Oregon Guard members’ visit to his school during the first two weeks of March, Gardiner had never heard of the Oregon Guard’s Counterdrug program, said Weisdorfer, who has been a teacher since 1976.

“I routinely teach drug education the old fashioned way: tell the kids about drugs and tell them to stay away,” he said. “But the approach here is based on wise decision-making.”

Aside from teaching valuable life skills, the Guard Adventure Program also assists students incorporate creative thinking and positive decision-making, use effective peer support, learn responsibility and effective communication skills, and build trust and value personal differences.

Each day’s lesson, over the course of 10 days of classes, builds upon the previous day’s instruction. But according to Counterdrug Support Program member, Tech. Sgt. Bobby Vickery, the bulk of the lessons don’t ‘gel’ until toward the end of their two weeks at the school.

“That’s when they understand how all the messages work together and how each activity builds upon each other,” he said.

One activity involves educating the kids about shifting the way they look at a situation. Called the “paradigm shift”, the exercise uses distracting techniques to pull the attention of the kids away from the true message being conveyed.

Vickery, an airman with the 142nd Fighter Wing in Portland, Ore., tells a story to the 20 or so kids gathered in the Gardiner school auditorium. He says that when he deployed to Iraq, there was a security guard at the entrance to the compound who had a secret code to allow people to enter the base.

Vickery uses wooden sticks to tap out codes on the wooden floor, and arranges them in patterns in front of the kids, and then asks them to try to guess the secret code he is trying to convey to them.

The lesson learned slowly by the children is that the code is not contained in the tapping of the sticks, or in their arrangement, but by his tapping of his hand on his knee after each performance. Watching the kids change their perspective and arrive at the “aha!” moment is all the reward Vickery and his teammates needs, he said.

“When they ‘get it’, that’s when a lot of change takes place,” Vickery said.

But the lessons also have an effect on the teachers. Vickery’s involvement in the Oregon Guard’s Counterdrug Program has improved his communication skills with his wife and coworkers.

“The ability to communicate and problem-solve, and the teamwork has actually helped out my marriage and interpersonal relationships,” he said.

Weisdorfer believes the program helps boost the kids’ self-worth—a key to keeping kids away from drugs.

“People use drugs because they don’t have an understanding of who they are and where they’re going,” he said.

Tech. Sgt. Matthew Simmons, who is new to the Counter-Drug Program, said the life-lessons taught by his group focus not so much on avoiding drugs, but a completely new way of thinking.

“It’s about living your life where you’re making wise decisions,” he said. “I love the messages being sent out.”

Simmons, who is with the Oregon Air National Guard’s 116th Air Control Squadron in Warrenton, Ore., said his involvement in the program has changed the way he thinks and interacts with his family.

“I hope I can bring some of this back home with me and help make us a more well-rounded family,” Simmons said.

“I’m right in the middle of my paradigm shift,” he added.

Sgt. Nathan Long, a soldier with the Oregon Army National Guard’s 3-116 Infantry, and member of the Counterdrug Support Program, joined Gratreak and Vickery during the second week. He said most of the children go through an obvious transformation during the second week of activities.

“The first week they’re all kind of shy,” Long said. “But by the second week, the natural leaders start stepping up.”

But Gratreak adds they’re also learning that leading doesn’t mean being out in front all the time.

“They’re learning that they can lead by being a follower, but still take the group in a positive direction,” she said.

In some cases, the groups don’t complete the different activities. But Gratreak says completing an activity is not as important as the revelations the children experience during the exercises.

“They’re still successful because they used teamwork,” she said. “They’re making sure everyone is doing what they’re supposed to. If someone messed up, they make sure that person knows what to do the next time. That’s really what we’re looking for,”

Following each session, there’s a lesson to be learned. Vickery calls the children into a circle, and talks about associating with the right people—pointing to how associating with positive people (and avoiding those who may be involved in illegal activities) can help them reach their life goals.

“They have a choice,” Gratreak says about Vickery’s point to the children. “Do they follow the negative person who is a distraction, or do they follow the positive person who is going to help them reach their goal?”

“The lesson learned is picking the people who are going to help you be successful in life,” Gratreak continues. “Why would you want to be around someone who isn’t going to have your best interests in mind?”

One 7th grader, who took charge as a leader in one of his group’s activities was Michael Shumacher. The 12-year old from Oregon City said being a leader is more about helping others.

“I learned that not everything you do, you do on your own. You can do it together if you all help each other out,” he said. “I can help other people feel like they accomplished something.”

“I also learned that if something is not right, you can step up and make a change,” he added.

To Long, all this effort is worth it.

“They’re our future,” he says. “They’re going to be taking care of us when we get old. Having an impact on their lives and helping them find their goals in life is my motivation.”

The week of March 16, the team moved to Ogden Middle School, where they administered the same lesson plan. The program is administered free of cost to the individual schools, and is staffed entirely by Oregon National Guard members.

Posted by Tech. Sgt. Nick Choy,
Oregon Military Department Social Media Manager

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