Bree Salgado, 19, wrote "With lots of love" before releasing her balloon as part of Weston High School's first-ever Red Ribbon Week.
"I've had some friends who have passed away," said Salgado, who has seen lives crumble under the weight of drugs and alcohol.
"Some wrote notes on balloons to a sibling lost to drug abuse," said Cindy Christoferson, a science teacher at Weston.
Red Ribbon Week, observed Oct. 23-31 in the Arlington district's alternative school, is a program founded by the National Family Partnership. The organization was formerly called the National Federation of Parents for Drug Free Youth.
"Red Ribbon Week went really well. This campaign is about raising awareness about how drug and alcohol use affects people," said Kristina MacCully, a chemical dependency counselor.
MacCully is affiliated with Catholic Community Services Recovery Center. The counselor is "on loan" from the agency, Christoferson said, and works at Weston High School. MacCully also visits Arlington High School and the district's middle schools.
During the awareness week, students took a stand against drug abuse by planning fun and thought-provoking activities.
There was a classroom-door decorating contest. Students wore red clothes as outward signs of support for staying drug-free. And as a symbol of hope, they planted red tulips that will bloom in the spring outside their school.
"Every kid in the school participated at some point," MacCully said. Most meaningful to many was the day they released balloons.
"It was about things they were letting go of -- drugs or alcohol, a relationship, or something they wanted to let into the universe," MacCully said. "Some wrote messages to family members who had passed away. It was a time to just come together."
Some students have seen drugs ruin friends' lives. Others have struggled with substance abuse themselves. Salgado said she has experienced both.
"After you tell someone they should stop for their own good, it's like a slap in the face to have them say 'I like doing this, I'm going to keep doing it.' I've changed my whole perspective," Salgado said. "And I've been done with that stuff for a long time."
For professionals working to steer teens away from drugs, there's a new elephant in the room -- legal pot use. Voters last year passed Initiative 502, making recreational marijuana use legal in Washington for people 21 and older. Has that changed the conversation with kids?
MacCully said the message has changed from "Drugs are bad, don't do it" to "Look at how drug and alcohol use affects people."
"Alcohol is legal, and it still has serious effects on the community," MacCully said. "It is hard when we hear about the legalization of marijuana. Being legal doesn't make things safe."
With teens especially, the counselor said, it's a personal experience that truly drives home a message. If a friend is killed by a drunken driver, views change. "It affects us. Everybody in a community is affected," MacCully said.
"It's always hard with teenagers. They're extremely impulsive -- in the now," she said. "The front part of their brain is not fully developed, nor their ability to plan ahead. How do you explain to these kids that down the road in their life, this will actually affect them?"
Weston student Natasha Turner, 19, said Red Ribbon Week was "a good thing."
"The more we talk about it at school, the better," said Turner, who plans to attend Sno-Isle TECH Skills Center's veterinary technician program.
Turner helped decorate a classroom door with "Hope Not Dope" and "A Healthy Me is Drug-Free." Still, she said she wasn't opposed to pot legalization. "It's better than other drugs, meth or heroin. It's a good idea to talk about it," she added.
With retail marijuana shops coming soon -- Snohomish County could see as many as 35 of the licensed stores -- it's a good idea to think about it, too.
"We do have concerns about the bigger impact on our community. What are they going to do to keep this weed sold legally to adults out of the hands of youth?" MacCully said.
Salgado sees pot legalization as "kind of crazy."
"It shouldn't be legalized. It shows younger people it's OK to be doing stuff like that," the teen said.
She is proud of Weston High School for taking a week-long stand against drug abuse. "Sometimes I feel like people judge our school. We have been known as 'that school, with those kids.' That's sad because kids here are staying clean," Salgado said.
"These activities brought us closer together," said Christoferson, the science teacher.
MacCully sees peer pressure as a powerful force that can be positive as well as negative.
"If one kid with a story to share affects another kid, that is a huge thing," the counselor said. "It's pebbles in the pond."
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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