NORWALK, Conn. – The students in Brien McMahon High School’s HEART group know what issues their peers are facing and how best to address them, and are using that knowledge to spread substance abuse education and positive messages in Norwalk.
The HEART (Health Education Awareness Raised by Teens) group is made up of Brien McMahon juniors Emily Davis, Armani Weise, Kaicy Coote, Madison Calloo, Diana Tomasto, Bryanna Rosa and Katie Evans.
The program is facilitated by Rhonda Capuano, director of the Dr. Appleby School Based Health Centers and Carlos Reinoso Jr., director of the Mid-Fairfield Substance Abuse Coalition. They meet weekly and plan presentations for local elementary schools and middle schools to teach fellow students about the dangers of drugs and tobacco.
“We give them the real facts. With our truth ads, we take an ad from a cigarette company, and then show them the truth. It’s usually something ugly,” Davis said. For example, they took a cigarette ad showing a singer with a lit cigarette and showed how smoking would hurt her lungs and prevent her from singing.
The group started as TATU (Teens Against Tobacco Use) but three years ago decided to expand to widen its scope of issues to address. They’ve tackled issues such as drugs, drinking and smoking, as well as mental health, bullying and relationships. They also focus on issues of advocacy, and recently traveled to Hartford , where they met with Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman.
“That really struck a chord,” Capuano said of meeting Wyman, who spoke to them of her own career and the importance of advocacy. “She shared her personal story and encouraged this all-female group to keep going, to push ahead with their positive message.”
A lot of the topics the students address are based on what they see in their lives. They see more of their peers are using e-cigarettes and hookah pens, as well as smoking marijuana, and want to address those habits. Reinoso said a lot of the times the students are the ones leading the show.
“They’re bringing ideas to us. They know what the trends are,” Reinoso said. “The youth voice is very important. We have to have them at the table. We don’t have all the answers, but they know what’s going on and what the kids are doing.”
When they realized a lot of students that they present to are on social media, they decided to use that to help spread information about the dangers of substance abuse, as well as positive messages that they hope followers will share. They also let the students they present to ask questions, such as a recent presentation to fifth-grade students in which they asked about dating violence.
Beyond planning presentations to students, the group has a lot it wants to accomplish. It is working on an application for a grant that will include a presentation and a video. It also is looking to meet with the Brien McMahon student government, and hope HEART can spread to other high schools in Norwalk and further spread a message of healthy living.
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