An adult coalition helping young people learn to cope with stress and make good decisions has been branching out, seeking grants, getting more people involved and gearing up for Red Ribbon Week.
The Anne Marie Project, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded by Cathedral of St. Joseph parish youth minister Julie Gramlich, works through schools and youth groups to teach young people effective coping strategies and decision-making skills.
The organization also offers resources to parents, teachers and other adults to help young people avoid such destructive behaviors as drug and alcohol use.
"Coping skills are key to prevention," Gramlich said. "If we can help these kids learn how to cope well with everyday stress, most of our prevention work will be done."
That needs to include fun activities not rooted in competition, she said.
"Schools need to be providing this," she added. "These kids want to be on campus, so we should try to keep them there instead of having them go to parties and getting in trouble."
Red Ribbon Week is observed nationally each October to help young people decide to stay away from alcohol, tobacco and drugs and avoid risky or violent behavior.
The Anne Marie Project will kick off Red Ribbon Week with an evening workshop on effective coping skills Tuesday at Helias High School, 1305 Swifts Highway. Led by Coach Jim Marshall of Cody's Gift and geared toward Helias students, parents and anyone else in the community, the discussion will begin at 6 p.m. in the school's Commons area.
Marshall will address the students of Thomas Jefferson Middle School on Monday morning about drug awareness and prevention, as well as Lewis and Clark Middle School students Thursday.
In addition, Nick Pefanis, a counselor with the Crossroads substance-abuse treatment program in Columbia, will address seventh- and eighth-graders at St. Joseph Cathedral School on Monday and at St. Peter Interparish School on Tuesday.
Gramlich and several friends founded the Anne Marie Project eight years ago. It is named for a young woman who wanted to help her friends but wound up succumbing to their destructive lifestyle, because she didn't have adult support.
Gramlich noted alcohol and drug abuse is increasing, with an average of one death by overdose occurring every nine minutes in the United States.
She pointed to studies suggesting young people on average begin experimenting with alcohol at age 12, and more than 45 percent of teens have used marijuana before they graduate high school.
"The biggest problem in this area seems to be underage drinking and the sharing of prescription pills," she said. "They're self-medicating because they haven't learned effective coping skills."
In addition, many parents don't realize their children are addicted to technology.
"With technology and social media, we are connected, but we are also lonely," she said. "Loneliness can contribute to depression and anxiety."
In the past year, the Anne Marie Project coalition grew from nine to 27 members, including school representatives and people who work for Boys & Girls Club, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Ascend Business Strategies, Compass Health and other organizations.
"We work with people who we know are around kids who are in these situations and might need help," Gramlich said.
The group also sponsors a two-day Mental Health First Aid training workshop to help adults recognize and address mental-health emergencies with young people.
"Our goal is to reach as many students and parents as possible with the message, referrals and whatever else we can offer," she said.
Teachers and trauma
With a grant from ACT Missouri, the Anne Marie Project helped local counselor Josh Varner put together resources on the effects of childhood trauma and is sending him into schools to talk to teachers.
"It's gone really well," Varner, who is a counselor at Helias High School, said. "I've gotten a lot of good questions, and people seem pretty receptive toward it."
Varner got his master's degree in counseling and did social work in a clinical environment for six years before joining the Helias faculty.
He regularly encountered anxiety and depression in young people but did not understand the cause of it until he went to a seminar on the lingering effects of childhood trauma. The presenters offered scientific data about the effects of trauma on brain development and behavior. This is an important step toward helping the young people who act out, rather than punishing them.
"It gave me a whole new perspective," Varner said. "In a lot of cases, they can't control their behavior. It's like a fight-or-flight response."
Understanding this helped him become much more successful in helping children, so he continued reading and attending conferences on the subject.
He agreed to work with the Anne Marie Project to spread the word.
He shows teachers how to use the "bio dot," an object that changes color in a student's hand to reflect his or her anxiety level.
This helps students become aware of being anxious and take steps to keep it in check. The same technique can also help the teacher work with the student without getting angry or frustrated.
So far, Varner has taught the class to the teachers, administrators and staff of Immaculate Conception School and St. Joseph Cathedral School, both in Jefferson City.
He hopes to do the same early next year at St. Stanislaus School in Wardsville and St. Francis Xavier School in Taos, with more to follow.
Contact Gramlich at 573-644-4965 or at firstname.lastname@example.org for information.
This article originally was published in the Catholic Missourian and has been republished in the News Tribune with permission.