Local teens join program to make good ‘Choices’

By: Brendan Losinski | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published March 26, 2018

 Joe Savalle, of Shelby Township, who works for the Alliance of Coalitions for Healthy Communities, was among the speakers during the “Choices” Youth Dialogue Day March 20.

Joe Savalle, of Shelby Township, who works for the Alliance of Coalitions for Healthy Communities, was among the speakers during the “Choices” Youth Dialogue Day March 20.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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BIRMINGHAM — Hundreds of high school students got an extra lesson last week with the annual Youth Dialogue Day, also called “Choices.”

Students from Bloomfield Hills High School, Seaholm High School, Groves High School, International Academy, Brother Rice High School, Detroit Country Day, the Roeper Academy and West Bloomfield High School took part in the event, which was hosted by the First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham March 20.

The event is organized each year by the Birmingham Bloomfield Community Coalition to help guide teens away from falling victim to substance abuse, to which program leaders said teens are particularly susceptible.

“Our Youth Action Board teens make sure this is the No. 1 program we bring back every year, because it’s important we give teens a voice to share what their experiences are,” explained Carol Mastroianni, executive director of the Birmingham Bloomfield Community Coalition. “It can be an eye-opening experience, and we’ve had kids (in past years) say this program is what has kept them from using alcohol and drugs.”

The program consisted of small group discussions, displays to show the students the dangers of substance use and abuse, two speakers from the Alliance of Coalitions for Healthy Communities, and actual court cases heard by Judge Diane D’Agostini, of the 38th District Court.

“We had two court cases heard here today,” said Mastroianni. “One with marijuana use and the other was extremely impaired driving. One gentleman went straight from here to jail. What’s good is then Judge D’Agostini sits down and explains to the kids why she ruled the way she did and why she thought those sentences were appropriate.”

The first speaker was Angela Spino-Bogota, a youth speaker and officer coordinator for the Alliance of Coalitions for Healthy Communities. Spino-Bogota shared her experiences with addiction, and what she has learned during her recovery and in her work preventing others from making the same mistakes that she did.

“Kids don’t really realize using substances in their youth can lead to an immediate addiction or lead to later addiction as an adult,” said Spino-Bogota. “Being able to look at and listen to people who have gone from addiction to recovery is important. Another major point (we try to communicate) is stress, anxiety and substance abuse can’t be handled on their own, and they need some sort of adult support person to help them.”

She stressed both the importance of young people listening to adults who have confronted addiction and substance abuse, and also adults listening to young people to better understand what challenges they are facing, and what the newest causes of substance use and abuse are.

She recommended “sitting down and listening to the kids, and we use what we learn from them to talk with them in the future,” said Spino-Bogota. “When we sit down with them, we don’t want to lead the conversation. We want to hear what they have to say and listen to what they are dealing with, whether that be suicide, gun violence, stress or whatever else.”

Spino-Bogota said that the way people are looking at substance abuse is changing and that to truly prevent addiction, more people have to see it not as “bad people trying to get good, but as sick people trying to get well.”

“There’s a lot of stigma around substance abuse disorder,” said Spino-Bogota. “People who are using alcohol or drugs will get in a car and drive or steal to support their habit, which frames it in people’s’ minds as a criminal issue, but at the end of the day, people won’t get better unless they get treatment.”

Feedback from the students was strong, said Joe Savalle, the second speaker and a youth and student development coordinator with the Alliance of Coalitions for Healthy Communities. He believes they were able to make an impression on a lot of students.

“I had students come up to me and go, ‘Whoa,’” he said. “I think seeing and hearing from us made a difference today. … They said they feel they can relate to a lot of what we talk about (regarding) the stress of high school and not having a plan for the next stage of their life.”

In addition to the speakers, the students got to take part in hands-on displays to better illustrate the dangers of substance use and abuse.

“We had resource tables available from groups like the Henry Ford Maplegrove Center, Alcoholics Anonymous Teens, Common Ground, and both the Birmingham and Bloomfield Youth Assistance groups,” said Mastroianni. “We also had interactive displays like the impaired driving simulator from (Ascension) Crittenton Hospital in Rochester and the Wheel of Wellness, which is sort of a game that demonstrates the different ramifications one night of indulgence can have.”

Organizers said they believe events like this are of the utmost importance. With drug abuse at epidemic proportions across the country, reaching teens at such an impressionable time of their lives is crucial, they said.

“I want to make sure people are familiar with our organization and see we have resources in the community all over southeast Michigan. A lot of families don’t realize there are resources to help fight and prevent these issues within a few miles of them,” said Savalle. “I hope the students here today walk away with one fact or one moment that will make them think twice before they make a decision to use drugs or alcohol.”

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