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'Project Sunset' helping to reduce substance use among district youth

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A program that has no mention of drugs and alcohol has proven itself effective in drastically reducing the rate of incidences for both in district youth aged 10-14.

Called “Project Sunset” and funded by the provincial government, the program is run by the local OPP at Crossroads School in Devlin for students in Grades 5-8.

“Project Sunset” facilitator Lincoln Dunn said the school-year programming has been fantastic and he's seen great levels of participation from the kids.

“It's been a phenomenal year,” he lauded.

Dunn now is looking forward to continuing “Project Sunset” into the summer, where he and Crossroads students will work on outdoor and canoeing skills, on a weekly basis.

He is happy to provide the programming and noted that it has been proven to help address the root causes of crime, social disorders, and crisis, to prevent substance use among youth.

This is done using a strength-based approach, instead of a deficit-based one, to empower the kids in the program.

“Rather than focusing on what it is they're doing wrong, we focus on what it is they're doing right and use that as a basis to raise the potential deficits that they have,” explained Dunn.

“Either behaviorally, from a capacity perspective, or from just a self-awareness perspective,” he noted.

“It's really a chance to try and get out in front and to help keep these kids off of a path that we know, without the support of trusted adults around them, have the tendency of travelling down.”

Through building positive relationships with the students, they build a connection to the community they never would have had, Dunn said.

And by having a connection to the community, the students develop a sense of belonging, which is proven to make them less likely to use drugs or alcohol.

“One of the things that we know from the research done in this area is that kids need to have one adult in their life that they believe cares about them,” Dunn noted.

"This is creating that opportunity.

“Obviously, the ideal person we want to be caring for them is their parents but sometimes that support isn't there,” he conceded.

The program has one in-school session and one out-of-school session every week.

The in-school part of the program consists of 45-minute sessions where “Project Sunset” staff and students engage in fun activities meant to build positive relationships between the OPP and the youths.

“The after-school [part] is where the rubber really hits the road,” said Dunn.

He explained that in the after-school program, the kids engage in a lot of learning by experience through canoeing, mountain biking, fire starting, developing camping skills, and other activities that many of them haven't had the opportunity to take part in prior.

“A lot of it is outdoor experiential learning," Dunn remarked. "Focused on outdoor activities primarily, it's designed so that the activities we're doing are meant to build life skills, self-esteem, and resiliency in these kids.”

“Project Venture" is the program that the "Project Sunset” curriculum is based off. And through peer evaluation, it's been proven to have a 45 percent reduction in alcohol and drug use in kids aged 10-14.

The parents' response to the program, meanwhile, has been phenomenal.

Dunn said parents have told him their children have had the courage to say “no" to risky activities they otherwise may have engaged in prior to the program, which the parents directly attribute to the work done through "Project Sunset.”

The courage to say “no" comes, in part, from the leadership skills "Project Sunset” instills in its participants.

“The parents will tell me the leadership skills you taught my son or daughter are phenomenal,” Dunn recounted.

“They have their own voice, they feel like they are valued, and feel like what they have to say is important,” he noted.

“I have worked with youth and teens for almost 25 years and one of the things that has always been powerful for me is being able to help build leadership skills for kids,” Dunn added.

“So many of them have it innately but just don't see it or recognize it, and helping them to recognize what we're seeing and how much of a power for good they can be with effective leadership is really gratifying to see.”

“Project Sunset” will continue running year-round until March, 2020, when the funding is expected to be discontinued.

By 2020, the goal is to have enough community partners and organizations see the value in this program that they will provide funding to help carry it out.

The idea is to spread it across multiple organizations so the financial burden is easier to bear.

“We're seeing primary [community] partners say 'yes, we want this to be sustained past the end of the funding,'” Dunn remarked.

“We are seeing the impacts; we know it's important,” he stressed.

“Project Sunset” always is looking for more volunteers who offer particular skills they feel would be of a benefit to children.

There is a volunteer application process, and those interested in applying can e-mail admin@projectsunset.ca for more details.

Moving forward, Dunn intends on continuing to provide life-changing programming to youth in the community through “Project Sunset.”

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