MONROE, La. - Fancy helicopters, high tech gadgets and a law enforcement background are most people’s perception of the Louisiana National Guard’s Counterdrug Task Force.
But for a select few Guardsmen, the Drug Demand Reduction Program begins with the state’s most valued resource: its children.
"The Louisiana National Guard’s Drug Demand Reduction efforts consist of several nationally-accepted programs that are designed for students in elementary, middle and high school,” said Chief Master Sgt. John M. Harris of the Louisiana Air National Guard.
He said examples of these programs are: Too Good for Drugs, Too Good for Alcohol, Life Skills, Stay on Track (SOT), Behind the Faces and the Ropes Challenge course.
In 2008, the LANG implemented Stay on Track, a National Guard drug prevention curriculum developed by the National Center for Prevention and Research Solutions, after the program was first successfully piloted in 11 other states.
"This curriculum is designed to reduce risk and enhance protective factors related to alcohol, tobacco and other drug use among students,” said Harris, a 25-year Air Guard veteran. "The programs emphasize goal-setting, decision-making and communications skills.”
Harris, who has worked fulltime for Counterdrug since transferring to the LANG in 1991, has other experiences to draw from when tackling the affects of drug abuse other than the life of a military man.
"On counterdrug, I have worked with the Gretna Police Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Gulf Coast High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area and Counterdrug Headquarters,” he said. "Over the past year, I began working with the schools.”
"I have always had a background of working with school-aged kids,” he said. "After completing basic training and technical school, I began college and worked at a gymnastics facility as a coach in the evenings.
Harris’ quiet but driven personality is complimented by the upbeat, passion of the LANG DDR Administrator, Maj. Donna C. Jones, whose dedication to the Guard and the DDR program is evident.
"I joined to be of service to others,” she said. "My father was a New Orleans police officer, and I admired his dedication and commitment to helping other people, and I wanted to do something similar.”
Jones described SOT as a 12-lesson substance abuse prevention curriculum developed for students in sixth to eighth grade that uses activities to teach about personal health, decision making, peer pressure and media influences.
"This program provides alternative activities for the kids,” said Jones, who has two sons. "Going through the program they learn skills for planning, problem-solving and communication. It teaches them to ask themselves, ‘How am I going to deal with a situation, and what are the consequences?’ Every decision is like a link in a chain and the outcome can be either positive or negative."
Jones has discovered that one of the most popular ways the students learn to deal with everyday obstacles is through a Ropes course on Camp Beauregard in Pineville, La. The course is completed in one day and is designed to encourage teamwork, communication and leadership skills by challenging the participants to work together to complete its various obstacles.
"Challenge by choice is the premise behind the Ropes course,” she said. "We want our students to believe in themselves when it comes to making life decisions. Hopefully, through this program they will have a defining learning moment and they will take what they learn and transfer it to the real world.”
Jones recently provided seven volunteers from the Lafayette Coalition to Prevent Substance Abuse with the opportunity to test their communication and problem-solving skills at the Camp Beauregard Ropes Challenge course.
The volunteers enthusiastically embraced the challenge in the attempt to train in the way that they teach.
"All things have a balance,” said Jackie Rowe of the Southwest Louisiana Area Health and Education Center. "People have different strengths and qualities and we have to take advantage of that. This course teaches that we all have something different to bring to the table and we have to use our experiences as a team to get through this life,” the Lafayette coalition volunteer added.
Jones said the Guard relies heavily on trained volunteers and coalitions from across the state.
"The National Guard provides instructors,” she said. "But we would be spread so thin if we were the only source of instructors. We are in the schools to teach, but we depend on volunteers who offer their time to go into these schools to help.”
Currently the LANG provides five Guardsmen as instructors and utilizes four additional civilian volunteer instructors in different locations throughout the state.
These full-time members of the LANG Counterdrug program have currently implemented the SOT program at N.P. Moss Middle School and Acadian Middle School in Lafayette, La.; Patrick Taylor Science and Technology Academy in Jefferson, La.; Colfax Elementary in Colfax, La.; Buckeye Junior High School in Deville, La.; and Meisler J.D. Middle School in Metairie, La.
The Stay On Track program is projected to reach 1,130 middle school students next school year. Pineville Junior High will be one of the new schools to implement the program.
Jones said the program is successful, because of the collaboration with the National Guard and its state volunteers.
"First and foremost, this is a community program,” she said. "The state coalitions collectively broke down barriers for the Guard’s involvement. Initially, what people see is a uniform, but we are an active part of the state, and prevention starts with our children.”