“What are we here for? Prevention, prevention,” chanted the teenagers on the steps of the legislative building’s south portico.
The students and their mentors, who numbered about 200, gathered for Prevention Policy Day on Monday at the state Legislature in Olympia. Issaquah’s Youth Opposed to Drug Abuse coalition traveled with students from Mercer Island’s Healthy Youth Initiative to advocate for sobriety.
The annual advocacy day raises awareness for drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse; this year’s hot topics included House Bill 1054 to raise the age of purchasing tobacco to 21, as well as the state’s opioid crisis.
“We all have a personal story of a friend or family member who has been negatively affected by drugs,” Mercer Island High School senior Hannah Stewart said at the morning’s rally, which she helped to organize. “We’re from everywhere, from all over the state, and we all care about the same issues.”
Student speakers at the rally shared personal stories that touched not only on drugs, alcohol and smoking, but also youth homelessness and sexual assault.
“We need to use our voices to make change,” declared Gibson Ek High School sophomore M. Haynes, 15, who spoke on behalf of YODA at the rally.
Legislators, including 41st District Rep. Tana Senn (D-Mercer Island) and 45th District Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland), also gave speeches at the event.
“You really are our future,” Goodman told the students.
Senn explained that she has personally felt the effects of bad decisions when it comes to alcohol. In high school, she lost four dear friends in a drunk driving accident.
“We are really working on that prevention,” she said.
After gathering at the rally with their peers from across the state, the Eastsiders met with their elected representatives: Senn, 41st District Sen. Lisa Wellman (D-Mercer Island) and 45th District Rep. Paul Graves (R-Fall City).
Wellman praised the group’s advocacy of an older tobacco age.
“The earlier you start, the more likely you are to continue and have a more difficult time stopping,” she stated.
Wellman said that the number of bills each year that include the expansion of alcohol sales is unbelievable.
“You’re here doing the best thing you can possibly do,” she told the students. She continued, “When we see things that are not right, not healthy, not good for our families and ourselves, we’ve got to speak out.”
“You’re here because you have convictions, you have things that you believe in and I’m proud of you,” she finished.
During the meeting, Senn told her young constituents that she also believes in the tobacco bill, though she did note that it will cost the tax dollars that are lost from sales.
“It exemplifies the difficult choices legislators have to make, but it’s one worth making,” she said, calling it a great bill.
Graves said during a 30-minute private meeting with the students that while he initially was on the fence about the tobacco bill, he has decided that it is a great way to nip tobacco addiction in the bud.
“I was really struck by talking with both high school students and doctors … If you don’t use [tobacco products] before you turn 21, you’re probably not going to use them at all, you’re not going to get hooked on them,” Graves said. “Your brains are still developing … so if we can encourage you not to use them, then you do better off.”
“It really can ruin you pretty fast. It can just ruin any kind of future that you might wanna have,” he continued. “So just not going down that path in the first place is really huge.”
He encouraged students to reach out to peers who may be involved in substance abuse to help them.
“Culture is gonna make a big difference,” Graves said. “Being able to talk about this in your schools … You’re more powerful with your friends at school than some legislative guy is ever gonna be.”
When it comes to the opioid crisis, Graves outlined his plan as keeping people from getting unnecessary painkillers in the first place, keeping people from overdosing and making it easier for addicts to access treatment.
“Some issues down here end up getting kind of partisan … but everyone agrees, Republican or Democrat, that we have a big problem when it comes to heroin and painkillers,” Graves said.
Graves also addressed the issue of mental health, advising everyone to reach out to others who may be going through a rough time.
“Be fair and be nice to your friends, even people who aren’t your friends,” he said. “It can be a really hard time … It’s the virtue of being kind to people and trying to understand what they’re going through.”
Issaquah High School junior Muskaan Agarwal, 16, who co-chairs YODA, said that she joined the organization because “this is a really good opportunity to have a really impactful voice” in “something greater than myself.”
“On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it’s important to emphasize serving everyone, working for the good of society,” she said.
Substance abuse “affects people my age, people I go to school with,” said Skyline High School junior David Kim, 17.
A family friend of Kim’s adopted two children aged 4 and 5, taking them out of a household with addiction problems. Kim said he was shocked to see kids at an age that is normally carefree having to go to counseling because of the trauma they have endured due to substance abuse.
Haynes and Pacific Cascade Middle School seventh-grader Addie Powell, 13, both got involved with the substance prevention cause because of relatives who have struggled with addiction. Both girls’ passion for helping others extends into their future careers; Haynes plans to become a social worker and Powell wants to be a counselor for kids coming from traumatic situations.
“I’m fighting for the people I love,” Haynes said.