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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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4-H After-School Program Guides Rio Arriba Youth Away from Drugs

ESPA├?OLA - This fall, New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service will launch a three-year, $750,000 program to encourage youth in Rio Arriba County to fill up their leisure time with fun, educational, after-school activities instead of drugs.

The program, financed by the U.S. Department of Justice, will offer a combination of 4-H activities and drug prevention education in elementary and middle schools in Rio Arriba?the county with the worst record of substance abuse in the state and one of the worst in the nation.

"In the last couple of years the community has really woken up to the local drug problem and begun to demand effective efforts to deal with it," said Roberta Rios, county Extension program director and home economics agent. "This program is aimed at dealing with some of the drug problems by offering kids positive activities to get involved in after school to deter them from the route of gangs and other risky behavior."

Rio Arriba leads the state in per capita deaths from heroin overdose, and New Mexico leads the nation. Nearly 100 hundred Rio Arriba residents have overdosed in the past five years, placing the county death rate from heroin overdose at more than triple the national average.

Rio Arriba County ranks second highest in New Mexico for deaths from drunken driving. It ranks third in male deaths from alcohol-related illness, and fourth in suicide.

There is no consensus about why substance abuse is so widespread in Rio Arriba County, but a depressed economy is clearly a major factor, Rios said.

About 30 percent of the county's 38,000 residents live below the poverty line, reflecting the sharp decline of northern New Mexico's subsistence farmers. Apparently some families have turned to drug dealing and consumption in recent years to earn a living and to numb emotional pain, Rios said.

"It's very difficult now to make a living off the land, and there's just not a lot of jobs in the county," Rios said. "So for some people, substance abuse has become the answer. It's almost become a way of life for some people."

Given the widespread narcotics problem, Sen. Pete Domenici lobbied heavily last year to get more funds to fight drug dealing in the area and to establish programs to help youth steer clear of substance abuse. The $750,000 in Justice Department funds is a result of that effort, Rios said.

The money, to be dispersed over three years at $250,000 per year, will fund a program similar to Extension's 4-H Share/Care, which provides after-school activities and substance abuse prevention education in targeted communities where kids are at risk of drug and alcohol abuse.

Rio Arriba youth are particularly at risk because of the high number of latchkey kids in the county. About 35 percent of children under 18 return to empty homes after school. Nearly 57 percent of children in the county come from families with working parents.

"Too many kids here are spending too much time alone after school, so our goal is to offer at risk youth a safe, supervised environment where they can do fun, constructive things while at the same time getting alcohol and drug prevention education," Rios said.

The program, to begin in October, will be available in this first year for about 200 first- through eighth-graders at five schools: Hernandez Elementary, Sombrillo Elementary and Espa˝ola Middle School in the Espa˝ola Valley Public School district; Ojo Caliente Elementary in the Mesa Vista Consolidated School district; and Tierra Amarilla Elementary in the Chama Valley Public School district.

Three of the county's five districts were chosen as immediate program sites because they are in areas with the greatest drug and alcohol problems and they have a larger population base. But participation will gradually expand to more districts and schools, especially as adult volunteers are recruited and trained to help carry out the program.

The after-school activities contain four program goals:

* life skills development, which includes 4-H projects to teach leadership, responsibility and good citizenship;
* health education, including 25 hours per year of alcohol, tobacco and other drug prevention education, plus nutrition and fitness training;
* diversity and cultural awareness using art, music, drama, storytelling and dance; and
* interpersonal relationship development to teach kids to cope with conflict through good decision-making and communication skills.

The program will also offer parenting education to help at least 200 parents learn and practice strategies to talk with their children about alcohol, drugs and other problems.

Extension will form a county-wide advisory committee to help plan and implement the program. The committee will seek long-term funding to sustain the program after the Justice Department grant ends. It will include parents, Extension staff, and an array of community representatives such as business people, clergy, law enforcement personnel, civic leaders and government officials.

"The committee will be key in building community support for this program," Rios said. "That's essential for its long-term sustainability."