by Michael Brownstein
1. "How can I say no to drugs when my mother says yes?" asked the seventh-grade girl in front of me. She wasn't the first of my students to ask that question. Unfortunately, I didn't have an answer that could satisfy her immediately, but I did have a suggestion. I invited her to join our club, which is part of a new organization called "Just Say No International". This organization is aimed at helping children with drug problems at home.
2. Twenty children - one of them as young as seven, but most in their early teens - attended the group's first meeting. I opened the meeting by asking the same question that I had been asked by my seventh-grader: "How can you say no to drugs when your mother, father, brothers, or sisters say yes?"
3. These were all students who come face-to-face with drugs in their inner-city neighborhood every day. In these areas, the smell of marijuana is as common as the smell of food coming up from the basement apartments. Used needles litter the streets and addicts take their injections in broad daylight in full view of passers-by. Drugs are for sale on every corner, and often the children are used as messengers between the junkies and their customers.
4. Sharing their experiences and talking about their fears helped the kids, but just talking wasn't enough. These students really wanted to let adults know how their drug use affects the children who live with it and have to cope with it every hour of the day. Unanimously, they decided that writing stories about the impact drugs had on them, as well as on other kids they knew about, might be a way to get the word out, not only to their own families, but also to teachers and community workers.
5. When the kids finished their stories, they shared them with the whole group. The stories were about the difficulties and sadness in their lives and the hard lessons life had taught them at such an early age. They told about mothers raging and hitting out at them because there was no money to buy the daily measure of dope. They told about fathers in prison because they had sold drugs and been caught, and they told about coming home to cold apartments with their younger siblings crying for food while the parents lay in bed in a drug stupor.
6. "Every day when I go to school I pass a lot of junkies on my way, and they are all begging for money," wrote Jason, 11 years old. "I really hope they don't have any children, because it would make me feel really bad if they did." Jason's parents are both drug addicts.
7. A teenager and former gang member who had been selling drugs for several years to help support his family contributed this story: "My uncle was a great basketball player before I got him started on drugs. I made him believe that he could play even better with drugs. He could have become a professional player, but he was soon so caught on drugs that he began stealing to support his habit. Today my uncle is a wreck."
8. He continued: "I've seen people die with needles in their arms, and only felt sorry because I was losing a customer. Then something terrible happened. I watched a friend die of an overdose. That was what made me quit. Today I work in a grocery store. It's much harder work and less money, but I feel much better."
9. He offered advice to children and adults alike: "I know it's hard to say no to drugs with all the peer pressure and people like me trying to get you started, but in order not to destroy your life completely you have to be stronger than everyone around you."
10. Latisha, 12 years old, related to the problem from the perspective of a 3-year old girl she knew, writing the story in the first person: "'My mother leaves me alone at all hours of the day and night, and lots of times I think I'm going to starve to death. My mother doesn't buy food that often... But no matter how big a junkie my mother is, and no matter how many times she beats me, I still love her."
11. Maleka, a teenager who has twice helped report cases of child abuse by drug addicts who live on her street, wrote about a neighbor, who would send her small children to Maleka's house to borrow the rubbing alcohol and cotton balls she needed for injecting drugs. "When these children come out to play, they are always dirty from head to toe. They always come out with no shoes on, and even if it is cold they never wear coats."
12. My students were proud of how well their writing expressed their feelings. Now they wanted to find a way for adults to read and learn from their tales. A grant from "Just Say No International" gave them that chance.
13. The kids worked together to edit their stories and compile them into a packet. Then the grant money was used to make copies of the finished packet and mail them to magazines and newspapers across the country. All the children also took copies home to show their parents and others in their families. Some parents who were drug addicts said they hadn't realized how profoundly their drug abuse affected their children. Several of them joined treatment programs after they had read their children's stories.
14. My students are still working very hard on distributing their stories and getting more adults to think about how their drug habits affect their kids. Their hope is that every day a few more adults will have the courage to do what their children implore them to do through their stories - to say no to drugs.