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CHAMP (Chemical Health Awareness and Meth Prevention) coalition coordinator Heidi Happel spoke to Menahga area residents Monday about underage drinking and ways to prevent it. (Riham Feshir / Enterprise)

Menahga weighs in on underage drinking

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Eighteen-year-old Olivia Archer is an addict who's been clean for nine months.

She wants to see more interaction between separate cliques in the schools in order to reduce the temptation to drink.

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"The people that are more inviting are the ones drinking," she said.

At a town hall meeting Monday night, Wadena County CHAMP program coordinators presented ways to prevent underage drinking and gathered feedback from the audience.

CHAMP stands for Chemical Health Awareness and Meth Prevention. It's a coalition of Wadena County that started in 2004 in regards to the growing concern of meth use.

Monday's meeting, held at Menahga School, focused on underage drinking and ways to prevent it.

"We try and support parents and give them resources as far as substance abuse," said Heidi Happel, CHAMP coalition coordinator.

CHAMP and the national "Most of Us" campaign surveyed seventh through 12th graders in Menahga to test the "social norms" theory.

When students were asked how many of their peers they thought used alcohol, the answer was 56 percent.

But when they were asked about their own use of alcohol, 87 percent said they were not using.

"We all like to be part of a group," Happel said. "We definitely want to be doing what we think most of our peers are doing."

So the campaign works on correcting the misperceptions and putting a positive image out for students to see.

As visitors drive into Menahga, they may see a billboard that says "Most Menahga students would rather NOT drink alcohol when hanging out with friends."

But instead of just telling students about the dangers of alcohol, teens would like to see alternatives to keep them busy on weekends.

"It really doesn't come down to what you know and what you don't," Archer said. "It comes down to fitting in."

Archer, a Hubbard resident who attended school in Park Rapids for about a year, suggested getting schools involved with more bullying prevention programs like the Olweus program in Menahga School.

She said she might have been bullied, but students weren't mean to her, it was just easier to join the clique that partied and drank most of the time.

"They make it look really appealing, they make it look like that's what you do and that's what's fun," Archer said.

CHAMP coordinators are currently working on coming up with ideas for long-term activities that can keep teens busy on Friday and Saturday nights.

Other audience members agreed that providing alternatives is more effective than preaching.

"Right now, we're just saying don't do it," Rebecca Knopps of Menahga said. "They're thinking, 'where do I go to get that high off of life instead of off the bottle.'"

When there is a place where students can hang out without having to be in any particular group, they're more likely to attend, Kristi Vizenor of Hubbard said.

"There has to be daily options," she said.

Happel said the coalition is currently working on developing ideas for getting teens more involved in family-friendly activities. Summer festivals scheduled in Menahga, Wadena and Verndale will be an opportunity to get different age groups participating in the same events.

For more information on the coalition or the Most of Us campaign, visit www.champforwc.org or www.mostofus.org.

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