When 16-year-old Vianey Lopez prepared for her Quinceañera celebration, she and her sister Viridiana Lopez asked their parents not to serve any alcohol at the traditional Latin American coming of age party.
Today, the Mesa teens have taken that message even further by asking parents they have never met to make a permanent pledge to keep alcohol away from their teens.
“You don’t need to have alcohol to have fun,” Vianey said.
“Our Quinceañeras were a celebration for us, so why have alcohol there?” Viridiana, 17, said. “Our family was very supportive of that.”
The sisters are part of the Mesa Prevention Alliance’s special teen program called Alliance of Leaders Against Drugs. In response to the troubling finding that 20 percent of high school seniors acquire alcohol from a parent or responsible adult, the alliance has placed an increasing focus on educating adults.
Recently, the group zeroed in on parents and youth during two outreach events called Alliance Touchdown Fridays, where teen volunteers asked parents at football games to sign pledges stating that they will not provide alcohol to teens or allow them to consume alcohol in their homes. The first event was held Oct. 11 at Mesa’s Westwood High School and the second one is scheduled for Nov. 1 at Skyline High School.
Nancy Diaz, 43, signed the pledge as she walked into the Westwood High School Football game with her family.
“I would never do that in the first place, but signing this puts you in a responsible state of mind,” Diaz said.
“You see so many parents who are letting kids have beer at their parties,” said Kathy Lopez, another parent who signed the pledge.
Executive Director for the Mesa Prevention Alliance Karen Frias-Long said that as a parent you have to “look at your own behavior and that can be uncomfortable.”
Frias-Long said that parents who allow their youth to consume alcohol in their homes often tell her that they believe their teens will drink anyway, and by allowing them to drink alcohol at home, they can prevent them from driving while intoxicated.
But experts say the issue is bigger than drinking and driving. Youth who start drinking alcohol before the age of 15 are five times more likely to develop alcohol dependence or abuse later in life than people who begin drinking at or after age 21, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“There are a lot of adults out there who feel that if it’s my house, I can do what I want,” said Steve Collins, Mesa Prevention Alliance member and owner of Kokopelli Group Home, which provides transitional housing for people released on probation, parole or recovering from addiction.
Collins and his wife Dorothy Olson see the destruction caused by alcoholism daily through meeting with men that live in their homes.
“Some of the worst cases we’ve had have been alcohol,” Collins said.
But the destruction of alcoholism has also touched them closer to home. Olson’s son Kris Olson died in 2004 at the age of 31 after battling alcohol addiction for nearly half of his life.
In fact, it was Kris Olson’s negative experiences living in transitional housing that prompted Collins and his wife to open their own group homes in 2005.
“I leave Kris’ story on our Web site because people think it will never happen to them,” Collins said. “Once they are addicted it’s horrible.”
Collins said the first time he caught Kris drinking alcohol was at the age of 13, and by 17 years old, the teen was in rehab. Around this time, Kris’ life became a series of periods of sobriety followed by periods of binge drinking.
“That’s the hardest part because you’d have the old Kris back and then ‘Boom! The addicted one is back,’” Collins said.
Collins and Olson, want parents to know that they need to take an interest in their children’s lives and start the prevention messages out early.
“We went to one of the Mesa schools to speak and there were only a handful of parents,” Collins said.
Cliff Moon, school counselor for Mesa’s Carson Junior High School said his school has worked with the Mesa Prevention Alliance for the past two years to make an Alliance of Leaders Against Drugs after-school program available to students and parents.
“When we first started, we had a group of adults who also showed up at the meetings, but that’s kind of gone away unfortunately,” Moon said.
Moon said the meetings run from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., which makes it difficult for working parents to regularly attend. Still, the program offers youth the valuable opportunity to learn about the dangers of drugs from their peers, who they are more likely to listen to, he said.
Ninth grade assistant principal at Mesa’s Skyline High School Nancy Guerra Roberts agrees.
“They need to hear the real facts about drug and alcohol use — not just conversational knowledge that they’re getting off the streets from their peers,” Guerra Roberts said.
Because of this, Guerra Roberts collaborated with the Mesa Prevention Alliance over the summer to incorporate a drug and alcohol awareness component to the school’s Freshman Boot Camp, a program that prepares incoming freshmen for high school. The drug and alcohol awareness portion is taught by youth trained through the Mesa Prevention Alliance.
Lopez and her sister Viridiana Lopez, 17, are two of those youth and both sisters agree that their messages resonate with other teens.
“Usually when teenagers don’t care, they just sit back, but they asked questions,” Vianey Lopez said. “Every time you gather more students to stand with you on this, it just becomes a bigger influence.”